Dems agonize over spending bill; GOP fills message vacuum

Congressional Democrats on Monday struggled to find a unified voice on funding the government as Republicans filled the message vacuum. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized a Republican spending bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared to embrace late last week. 

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The split in the Democratic Party was seen as a blow to the conventional wisdom that a government shutdown would be averted this week. Many political observers still anticipate that a two-week spending bill will clear the House and Senate by this weekend, though there will likely be some bumps along the way. 

House Republicans introduced their stopgap measure on Friday, and in a move that surprised some Democrats, Reid’s office indicated support for it.

Pelosi did not, saying in a released statement: “Republicans want to cut an additional $4 billion, which includes stripping support for some pressing educational challenges without redirecting these critical resources to meet the educational needs of our children. This is not a good place to start.”

During a speech on the Senate floor Monday, Reid only mentioned that the upper chamber would be taking up a continuing resolution bill this week. He did not make any remarks on the House proposal, and his office declined to comment. 

Republicans on Monday played offense, attempting to push Democrats further into a corner.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called it “really good news” that Senate Democrats favor the GOP bill. 

Cantor told reporters, “We don’t see why there’s any reason in the world the Senate doesn’t accept [the legislation].”

In a floor address, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Democrats “have started to suggest they might be willing to agree to it.”

“This week they have an opportunity to show they have got the message” on spending, he added. 

It is unclear if the Senate will vote on the House Republican funding bill or look to make changes to it. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) did not issue a statement on the House appropriations measure, which will hit the House floor on Tuesday. Inouye’s office did not comment at press time. 

The Democratic silence stands in sharp contrast to the last couple of weeks, when Reid, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats repeatedly accused GOP lawmakers of working to shut down the government. 

The House Republican move to endorse cuts proposed by President Obama in his new budget blueprint has, at least for the moment, given the GOP the upper hand. The maneuver was unexpected, as many believed Republicans would simply introduce a bill that pro-rates the cuts in the appropriations bill they passed last month. That measure, which the White House has vowed to veto, seeks $61 billion in spending reductions.

The House GOP freshmen are on board with the new strategy, sources said. Last week, while the House was out of session, GOP leaders held a conference call with freshmen to brief them on the details of the stopgap funding bill. 

House Democrats are worried that the two-week bill would slash education funding without reinvesting it in more effective education programs backed by Obama. 

Some Democratic aides said they were worried that the popular Teach for America program will lose its $18 million earmark under the Republican proposal. A GOP aide noted, however, that the secretary of Education could still choose to finance that program from other funding sources in the department’s innovation account. 

The Republican staffer said the House Appropriations panel took a balanced approach when seeking to eradicate earmarks, adding the targeted pet projects were sought by members of both parties. 

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said hundreds of 2010 Democratic and Republican earmarks would be terminated by the GOP stopgap bill. 

Republicans used the Pelosi statement Monday to highlight a rift among the Democrats. 

“You see a little bit of tension — at least the subtext is tension — between Leader Pelosi and Leader Reid,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief House deputy whip.

“So I hope the Democrats are able to get over their divisions and come together in the same way that House and Senate Republicans are in working on this goal.”

Pelosi has advocated funding the government at existing levels, as had Reid — until late last week. Reid has previously indicated support for a 30-day patchwork measure.

At a Rules Committee hearing on Monday evening, Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said Republicans had asked Pelosi to offer her spending measure, but she had declined.

If Obama does not sign a government-funding bill, the government will shut down on March 4.

The White House wants to avoid a succession of short-term appropriations measures. 

“If we keep returning to this process every couple of weeks, that will be bad for the economy because of the uncertainty it creates and the tension around that,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

He said the administration is “pleased” that Congress seems to be “moving in the right direction” on spending, but did not endorse the GOP proposal. The bill would seek cuts in labor, health and education programs, among others. It does not seek to defund the president’s landmark healthcare law.

Liberal groups say Democrats should stand up against any damaging cuts. 

“Democrats cannot be afraid to engage in a fight they can win. If Republicans are proposing cuts to necessary and popular programs, Democrats should simply say no,” said Adam Green, head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Rebecca Thiess of the Economic Policy Institute said, “What do these cuts accomplish? They do nothing to create jobs. How does eliminating highway funding and funding for the Striving Readers program create jobs? These cuts should not be Congress’s priority — boosting the labor market should be. 

“And any cuts made should avoid hurting the tepid recovery … A task that will get harder and harder with each consecutive budget battle,” she said. 

Molly K. Hooper and Russell Berman contributed to this article.


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