Irritating appropriators, GOP punts spending bills to Democrats

In a move that has infuriated Republican appropriators, GOP congressional leaders have decided to punt their annual spending bills until next year, when Democrats assume control of both chambers, according to numerous Republican aides.

The decision was expected and is a further indication that congressional Republicans will not address any of the White House’s legislative priorities before ceding control next year.

Within the last week, Vice President Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have urged Congress to move an update of the administration’s controversial domestic surveillance program, but there has been little activity to meet that goal since members returned from the watershed election.

A federal judge’s decision over the summer to invalidate the administration’s wiretapping of overseas calls to suspected terrorists has forced the administration to negotiate with congressional leaders to continue the eavesdropping program.

Relations between the White House and Republicans on the Hill have been strained since the election, which further complicates the negotiations between Republicans in the House and Senate on the contentious bill because members are less motivated to give the administration a win.

President Bush urged Congress to pass a Vietnam trade bill before his trip there this past weekend, but after the measure failed in the House, congressional leaders did little to revive the legislation, which attracted the backing of Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

The expected decision to postpone consideration of the remaining spending bills, which was finalized late last week, angered appropriators in both chambers who worked hard to finish their bills on time this year.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met with the two appropriations chairmen, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), last Friday to break the bad news, aides said yesterday.

“Senator Cochran thinks it’s completely irresponsible that the responsibilities of this Congress have been abdicated for the year,” Cochran spokeswoman Jenny Manley said.

The House has passed all of its appropriations bills except for the spending bill for the departments of labor, education,  and health and human services, and Cochran completed his committee’s bills faster than any chairman in the past 18 years, Manley said.

Members of the House spending committee have been locked in a showdown with Majority Leader John Boehner over procedural issues regarding special projects inserted into these bills since the Ohio Republican won his post at the beginning of the year.

The fractured relationship between appropriators on one side and conservatives on the other should play a role in upcoming elections to pick the next chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC).

Some conservative staffers believe Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) has been floated as a leadership-friendly candidate to temper some of the group’s outspoken firebrands who have also been mentioned as possibilities for the chairmanship, such as Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

In the past, the committee’s four founders — Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Sam Johnson (R-Texas) and Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) — selected each chairman of the conservative group, but those members, with Doolittle taking the lead, are reworking the nominating protocols after Istook’s retirement, an aide to one RSC member said yesterday.

Outgoing RSC Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has expanded the group’s exposure over the past two years, but some leaders and staff have been concerned that the group’s increased exposure undermined Republican reelection efforts by further alienating conservative base voters who had grown frustrated with the GOP’s inability to curb federal spending.