Appropriators pose new budget hurdle

Appropriators are squaring off with conservatives on major spending issues in both chambers, creating a sizable hurdle for GOP leaders on either side of Capitol Hill when Congress resumes its session later this month.

Budget negotiations in the House collapsed last week after Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) refused to support language limiting his committee’s ability to fund disaster relief.

The late-week defection was an unexpected shift in GOP leaders’ conversation with centrist and conservative members on the always-controversial budget bill because it introduced a third obstacle to passage.

A similar confrontation between appropriators and conservatives is taking shape across the Capitol, where senators have already passed their version of the budget bill but have now loaded up an emergency spending measure with items the president did not request.

That appropriations package, which would fund hurricane recovery and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, promises to test the convictions of conservative budget hawks who have vowed to take a tougher line on spending.

In the House, the budget impasse is the latest development in an ongoing feud between conservatives and appropriators. It also illustrates the difficulty leaders face in confronting spending issues during this critical election year.

Centrists and conservatives in the House have long been at odds over spending, but the conservative conflict with appropriators adds yet another obstacle for leaders to overcome if they are to have any realistic chance of passing a spending blueprint this year.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said over the weekend that he remains committed to bringing a budget bill to the floor when members return from their two-week recess. To do so, he must first bridge the gap between conservatives and members of the Appropriations Committee over permanent changes to the annual budget process.

The standoff in the House boils down to a difference of opinion between Lewis and conservatives over how to limit the number of earmarks added to appropriations bills. That was a major plank of Boehner’s campaign for that majority leader post and is a change conservatives have demanded their leaders make in the wake of lobbying scandals that have brought down Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and a number of staffers.

Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) would like to make the process more transparent while giving members the right of final approval on appropriations projects added outside the committee process. Lewis, meanwhile, does not want to limit reform to bills originating in his committee alone.

The tension between conservatives and appropriators has been constant during the Republican majority, but it took a sharp turn for the worse last month when 29 Republicans voted against the rule for an emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after leaders refused to strip money for hurricane cleanup from the overarching legislation.

Conservatives had hoped the leaders would allow them to consider first an amendment to separate cleanup costs from the war-funding bill and then to offset those costs, although they did not cite specific programs. RSC Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) notified members that he was voting against the rule on the morning of the vote after he learned that leaders were not dividing the legislation.

Some GOP members and staff assumed that Boehner made a deal with Pence and then reneged to side with Lewis in the debate over emergency spending, but conservatives said afterward that there had never been any deal.

Budget negotiations then fell apart last week when Lewis objected to the point-of-order protections that leadership had promised RSC negotiators. The protections would allow members to review any emergency spending bill that exceeds the $4.3 billion set aside in the so-called rainy-day fund.

Appropriations staff did not see the language for those protections until Pence sent it around as part of an announced deal, GOP aides said after members pulled the budget bill. Others involved in the negotiations said Lewis did not learn of the changes until late in the process because he was not present during many of the negotiations.

Upon reviewing the point-of-order protection, Frank Cushing, the Appropriations Committee’s majority staff director, sent e-mails to committee members and leadership staff last Wednesday notifying them that Lewis would not support the rule or the budget resolution unless the rainy-day fund and the point-of-order protections were dropped from the bill.

“The proposed new point of order you kindly shared with us later this morning poses an even greater and significant roadblock to getting our work done …” the letter read. “An unwaiverable point of order seems to go far beyond good sense and good government.”

The debate over budget-process reform has prevented Republican leaders in the House from focusing on some of the individual member issues that would allow them to assemble enough votes to pass their budget measure and could permanently imperil a vote on the House bill.

In the Senate, members are expected to take up their $106 billion version of the emergency supplemental spending bill when they return to business later this month.

The Appropriations Committee added $14 billion to the president’s request, and conservatives, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are now vetting their options for paring the bill — or holding it up — before a final floor vote.

Because the legislation will not hit the floor for nearly two weeks, discussions are still in the early stages. But some conservatives would like to see the Senate bill scaled back to the $92 billion President Bush requested.

In particular, critics have singled out a $700 million appropriation for Mississippi to buy railroad tracks from CSX so that they can be moved and a highway can be built in their place. The project that has already attracted the sobriquet “railroad to nowhere,” in reference to the $223 million Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” that was included in last year’s highway bill before leaders stripped it out. The tracks were recently repaired for $300 million, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s not a national emergency,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said.

With more projects expected, the supplemental is a critical test for Senate conservatives.

Domestic programs that lawmakers rely on for reelection have been squeezed in recent years by the massive “emergency” spending bills the White House uses to fund the war in Iraq. As a result, appropriators now shift several billion dollars of the president’s annual Pentagon requests — which fund basic Defense Department programs that are not included in the war funding bills — to various domestic programs.

Senior aides said allocations for discretionary spending in fiscal 2007 would reflect a similar shift. The administration will always make up for the Pentagon shortfall in the next supplemental, lawmakers and aides said.