McConnell scores win as GOP rejects bill that would bust budget cap

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scored a big win on Thursday as Republicans heeded his call to block an appropriations bill that would have exceeded spending caps set in 2011.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats in a 54-43 cloture vote — short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation.

If the Senate had passed S. 1243, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill, which funds government transportation and housing agencies, it would have given Democrats a clear upper hand heading into a government shutdown showdown in the fall.

House Republicans balked at spending cuts, and House leaders had to cancel a vote on their own transport bill Wednesday afternoon. A sustained GOP defection supporting a reversal of spending cuts in the Senate would have compounded the fracturing of the GOP position.

"The vote we just had was symbolically very, very significant," McConnell told reporters. "There is no question that if cloture had been invoked on this particular appropriations bill, which was even more than what the president asked for, your story line tomorrow would have been Congress on a bipartisan basis walks away from the Budget Control Act."

Senate Democratic leaders blasted McConnell for standing in the well of the Senate chamber and pressuring centrist members to block the bill.

"They were all arm-twisted into voting 'no,' against what they believed in," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "It's sad that Mitch McConnell is in a position where he feels he must whip against a bill like this one."

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After six Republicans voted for the bill in committee, McConnell whipped his caucus to oppose it on the floor. He noted that the bill would exceed spending limits set by the Budget Control Act.

“Voting for appropriations legislation that blatantly violates budget reforms already agreed to by both parties moves our country in the exact wrong direction,” McConnell said. “It puts us on the Democrat path to austerity. That’s one of the many reasons I’ll be voting against this spending bill.”

The vote shows how tough it will be for any Senate appropriations bill to overcome a GOP filibuster if it exceeds spending levels set by the sequester.

Collins, the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the THUD bill, said the spending differences could have been made up for in other legislation.

“This bill would have been undoubtedly reduced had we been able to move forward to conference,” Collins said. “Forcing the government to operate under continuing resolutions is irresponsible and it’s wasteful.”

Democrats chose to debate the THUD appropriations bill first to highlight the stark spending difference between the House and Senate, in an effort to push Republicans into a budget conference committee. 

There is a $91 billion difference in spending levels between the House and Senate appropriations this year. For the THUD bill, the difference is $10 billion — setting up the potential for a challenging conference committee.

The Senate bill's spending level for THUD is $54 billion, while the House has a $44 billion bill, which is a cut of $7 billion from last year’s spending level.

House Republican leaders pulled their THUD bill from floor consideration on Wednesday, though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has vowed it will be brought back in September.

“A vote on this bill is a vote for jobs, for the economy, and for bipartisan solutions to the problems facing our nation,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation and Housing Agencies. “A vote to filibuster this bill is a vote for more gridlock, more obstruction, more partisanship, and more political games.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted the the head of the House Appropriations panel, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), this week urged his leaders to abandon deep spending cuts in the House budget

The House Republican bill cuts the Community Development Block Grant program and high-speed rail projects, while Senate Democrats' bill maintains most existing funding for those programs.

The Senate bill would also prohibit the Federal Aviation Administration from issuing rules on domestic drones, limits Amtrak employee overtime and requires the Department of Transportation to notify Congress of grants it issues.

The Senate approved five GOP amendments to the bill and one Democratic amendment — all were minor changes.

On Wednesday, the Senate defeated an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have ended foreign aid funds to Egypt and redirect the money to U.S. infrastructure projects.

The failure of the two bills leaves Congress at an impasse heading into the five-week August recess with just a handful of legislative days before a possible government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Furious Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said the only solution on the table now is for Republicans to agree to a conference committee to work out a new budget cap for the year. Republicans have blocked Murray's attempts to negotiate on the differing House and Senate passed blueprints for months.

"If they want a new top line then ought to get off their rhetoric, get off their holds and get off everything else and let Murray and the budget committee go to conference and get a new top line," Mikulski said. 

--This report was originally published at 12:57 p.m. and last updated at 2:04 p.m.