By Scott Wong - 12/23/15 06:00 AM EST
House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanFBI rocks presidential race The “Do-nothing Congress” moved the needle on drug reform How Republicans can move past Trump’s politics of personal ambition MORE (R-Wis.) informed his GOP colleagues at a recent closed-door meeting that he had just received a promise from Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidKaine: Dems will use 'nuclear option' if GOP blocks court nominee Five takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Democrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments MORE (Nev.).
The room — filled with lawmakers skeptical of Reid’s motives — erupted in laughter.
Fresh off a nearly $2 trillion government funding and tax-cuts deal, both Ryan and Reid are sounding a rare note of cooperation in the midst of a highly partisan presidential election cycle.
However, Reid's pledge to return to regular order on appropriations bills is facing hearty skepticism from congressional Republicans.
They feel they’ve been burned one too many times by Reid, who repeatedly filibustered House-passed appropriations bills this year and has a reputation for launching broadsides against the GOP from the Senate floor. And they’re not so sure the Nevada Democrat will allow bills to move through the Senate Appropriations Committee to the floor, where after they are approved they could be merged with House-passed legislation.
“I personally don’t trust Harry Reid as far as I could throw him,” quipped Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), chairman of the Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
“I’m extraordinarily skeptical,” added Ryan’s Wisconsin colleague, GOP Rep. Reid RibbleReid RibblePoll: GOP has edge for open Wis. House seat Trump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Speaker Ryan tries new Trump strategy: Ignore him MORE.
“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but Harry’s a tough character to deal with and he’ll find some way to stop virtually anything that he doesn’t completely support, which is most of what we care about,” said House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). Still, he added, “I wouldn’t discourage Paul from trying.”
Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynFBI rocks presidential race GOP senator questions timing of FBI's Clinton emails review FBI under pressure to provide more details MORE (R-Texas) has seen up close Reid’s efforts to bottle up spending bills in the upper chamber. “I’m as hopeful as anybody else,” he told The Hill, “but I think experience has proven that that hope is not always met with actual follow-through.”
Reid and Ryan have reasons to try to work together.
The new Speaker, less than two months on the job, sees 2016 as his first opportunity to lead an appropriations process from the start.
For Reid, a former appropriator who’s retiring after three decades in the Senate, next year marks his last chance to fix a spending process run amok.
“Harry has one year left. Maybe on his way out the door he might want to leave a legacy of restoring some semblance of an orderly appropriations process,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), another House appropriator, told The Hill. “I hope that’s not too much to ask.”
Earlier this year, as Ryan was mulling over a bid for Speaker, Reid declared himself a "Paul Ryan fan," saying the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee was one of the more "reasonable" Republicans he could work with.
And there are signs their relationship has grown in recent weeks. As they negotiated the spending and tax-breaks package, the two men held several one-on-one phone calls — plus an in-person meeting in the Speaker’s office — about getting back to a more regular funding process.
Reid has offered public praise for Ryan’s handling of the House so far, and Ryan’s comments suggest he is taking his adversary at his word — and that Congress could ditch the governing-by-crisis model that dominated the tenure of Ryan’s predecessor, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The budget deal President Obama struck with Boehner and other congressional leaders this fall sets spending levels through the 2017 fiscal year. The budget pact not only gave appropriators a framework as they draft new bills next year; it lifted the sequester’s strict spending caps, thereby eliminating the central reason Reid had blocked the GOP-led appropriations process this year.
“In 2016, we will make it our goal to pass all 12 appropriation bills through regular order,” Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman, told reporters at his final news conference of the year.
Reid echoed that same message at a press conference of his own: Ryan “wants to do appropriations bills. I want to do appropriations bills, and there's no reason we can't.”
However, the devil may be in the details. Ryan explained to his rank-and-file members, and later to reporters, that Reid had only promised to allow the Senate to begin debating individual spending bills next year — not necessarily allow the chamber to end debate on such legislation.
That means if Democrats objected to a specific policy rider Republicans attached to a spending bill — such as one to defund Planned Parenthood — Reid could block that bill from reaching a final vote. That was perfectly within the rights of the Senate’s minority party, Ryan acknowledged.
“Now whether they filibuster a bill getting off the floor because of some rider, I can’t speak to that,” Ryan told reporters last week. “I assume all minorities will preserve such rights, but Senator Reid has impressed upon me his desire to get the appropriations process functioning again.”
During their discussions, Reid also made clear to Ryan that getting the appropriations process back on track is a “two-way street” and that Republicans need to be willing to meet Democrats halfway, a Reid aide said.
But if Reid allows the Senate to debate and offer amendments, even highly skeptical Republicans view that as a marked improvement from the current state of affairs.
“At least bills get considered, there’s debate,” Dent said, “but it may not ultimately resolve the problem of the House bills bunching up in the Senate.”
The House passed six spending bills in 2015, but thanks to Reid they went nowhere in the Senate. Dent and other appropriators are hopeful the House and Senate can at least reach a deal on spending bills dealing with national security, including Defense and Homeland Security, before the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
“That would be progress,” Dent said.
Other Republicans are holding out hope that Congress can send at least a handful of spending bills to the president’s desk in 2016.
“To be truthful do I think we can get 12 bills individually passes? No,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a deputy GOP whip, told The Hill. “But can we get six? Maybe, and that would be great.
“The more bills we can move individually, it’s better policy, it’s more input from the American people. It’s just a better way of doing things.”
For now, conservative hard-liners, who’ve bitterly complained about 11th-hour emergency spending measures and the broken appropriations process, are willing to give Ryan some space. They aren’t yet ready to call the new 45-year-old Speaker overly naive for negotiating with Reid.
“I have some doubts. We’re talking about Harry Reid. I think Harry Reid is pretty clever and I would take anything he says with a grain of salt,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
“Harry Reid may be playing the game. Ryan’s new to the post. There’s going to be some testing of each other,” Amash added. “But I’ll give Ryan the benefit of the doubt — he’s the one who has to assess if Senator Reid is being honest.”