Spending Hawks are 'making their point, slowly but surely'

By the time Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) brought a $106.5 billion emergency war-funding bill to the floor last week, spending hawks were in the midst of executing a sophisticated battle plan intended to bring the bill in line with the president’s request.

Furious over the $14 billion addition to the president’s original request, a small set of conservative lawmakers, aides and activists sprang into action over a two-week Easter recess. They devised a war plan, identified their generals and began turning potential foes into potent allies.

Upon the Senate’s return, they secured a veto threat from the White House, a letter supporting that veto from enough senators — including Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — to sustain it and the significant, if largely symbolic, removal of a $15 million seafood-promotion provision.

“They’re making their point, slowly but surely,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a former Appropriations chairman, said yesterday.

The conservatives’ plan of attack included direct assaults on the bill through amendments, motions and rare parliamentary maneuvers.

But the Senate floor can be a hostile environment for a small minority, no matter how committed. To make matters worse, they hoped to overcome appropriators, who control the flow of federal money to each senator’s home state. To win, they would have to take their fight off the floor and outside the Capitol.

Their strategy has always been aimed at influencing conference negotiations, where they feel they have their best chance to pare the bottom line. They sought support on their flanks from the White House and K Street.

They pressed for a veto threat from President Bush for any bill exceeding his request, which stands at $94.5 billion after a late call for $2 billion in levee funding on the Gulf Coast. They also sought a public commitment from Senate leaders that the bill will be held to that level when it returns from conference.

Senate conservatives had staff- and member-level contact with White House aides during the two-week recess and as the bill came to the floor.

“I expect conservatives to try to find a way to reverse the committee adds,” a senior GOP aide said April 11. “I don’t know how successful they will be.”

Not even the conservatives could predict how successful they would be.

“We were floored when we won that vote,” a Republican aide said of the amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to strike the seafood-promotion funding. Several aides said votes on amendments were intended to complement a strategy focused on forcing reductions during conference negotiations.

The spending hawks also kept in close contact with think-tank allies and interest groups who would help them spotlight provisions they considered extraneous, such as a $700 million appropriation to move just-repaired railroad tracks in Mississippi.

“It would have been impossible for the conservatives to win any of these fights without the president issuing a veto threat and the grassroots conservatives becoming active and talking about the railroad to nowhere,” said Brian Darling, head of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Heritage analysts Brian Riedl and Alison Acosta Fraser wrote a scathing April 17 Web memo titled “The Senate’s Deadly Sin: Larding Up Emergency Appropriations.” Riedl and Fraser argued that many of the items in Cochran’s version of the bill do not constitute “emergency” spending.

“The president should draw a line in the sand by promising to veto any supplemental that is either beyond the scope of his request or above its total level of funding,” they wrote.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative interest group, put up a website, www.railroadtonowhere.com, to compile information and media reports on the supplemental.

Frustrated by their inability to control all-important conference committees, conservatives pursued both a veto threat and a conference promise from Senate leaders.

“I think we will get it,” an excited aide confided April 19.

As the bill made its first appearance on the floor April 24, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) talked with Bush about a possible veto threat while the two men flew back from Las Vegas, where Bush had been raising money for Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.).

Frist found himself in the unusual position of asking the White House to issue a veto threat against a Senate-produced bill — a bill that had yet to pass on the floor. Senate leaders typically protect the chamber’s legislation.

Frist, who is expected to seek the presidency in 2008, joined the rebellion. The White House issued an unqualified veto threat April 25.

Coburn says that he is glad to get assistance from the outside but that the impetus for slashing spending is coming from public outrage.

“It all helps, but I would also say the White House is listening, too,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the Republican Steering Committee and a leader among the spending hawks, began a push to collect the signatures of more than one-third of the senators on a letter promising to sustain a Bush veto.

“Like you, we are seriously concerned with the overall funding level in the Senate-reported bill, and the numerous items that are unrelated to the Global War on Terror or emergency hurricane relief needs,” Sessions and 34 of his colleagues wrote to Bush on April 26. “Should the final bill presented to you exceed the total amount you requested, forcing you to veto the bill, we will vote to sustain your veto.”

Frist and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both signed the letter, simultaneously lending it legitimacy and demonstrating the strength of the conservative insurrection.

On the floor, conservatives sought to bring attention to offensive provisions. A small but committed group of senators assembled a long list of amendments and motions designed to force votes on the bottom line and individual items within the bill.

Ensign tried and failed to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee to let the panelists decide how to pare it down to the level of the president’s request. Coburn executed a rare parliamentary maneuver by introducing a single amendment with 19 parts, each of which can be voted on separately.

Coburn has become a hero among conservatives in the Senate because he is willing to slow down the institution to make a point about spending. But by himself Coburn could not hope to mount a successful campaign against powerful senior senators. His signature effort to cut the “Bridge to Nowhere” from last year’s highway bill garnered 15 votes.

Coordination among Coburn, Ensign, Sessions and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was critical to sustaining a floor fight, according to one Senate Republican aide.

“As a practical reality, if it’s one person whose perceived to be concerned about something, they’re probably not going to be successful for very long,” the aide said.

The Senate is expected to vote today on whether to cut off debate and move toward a vote on germane amendments and the bill itself later in the week.

The Senate spending battle is fueling energy among conservatives elsewhere.

“The Senate’s timing was helping us with the earmark-reform battle in the House,” a House Republican aide said.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) are expected to put out a joint press release today demanding that the Senate not exceed the emergency funds requested by the White House.

Coburn hinted yesterday that if Pentagon and homeland-security spending bills later in the year are not earmark-free, he will reprise his fight.

“It’s going to be a fun summer,” he said.

Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.