Two bills hang in the balance as House prepares for recess

Unexpected opposition from within the Republican Conference yesterday nearly forced GOP leaders in the House to pull two bills expected on the floor today.

GOP aides in and out of the leadership suggested that only one bill would make it to the floor today — and possibly neither. Leaders scrambled yesterday to find the right compromises to send members back to their districts on a high note.

The dispute over one bill in particular exposed long-standing strains between appropriators and fiscal conservatives that have divided the conference all year.

A bill by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) to create an independent panel to review funding for select federal programs ran up against a major roadblock in the form of opposition from Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and a handful of prominent centrists.

A measure from Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) to establish initial federal standards for online medical records also ran into opposition when hospital groups rejected language, eventually stripped from the bill, that would have required them to disclose what they charge for medical procedures.

Both bills were still on today’s floor schedule as of press time yesterday, but leadership staff and members of the whip operation of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) were stretched thin trying to build support for both measures, members and staff said yesterday. At press time, Johnson’s bill appeared ready for passage after changes were made, one leader said.

Lewis was not alone in his objections to the bill, but Tiahrt acknowledged yesterday that opposition from members of the Appropriations Committee is the major obstacle.

“I think the problem is that people don’t understand it,” Tiahrt said yesterday.

Tiahrt, an appropriator who is also a member of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of fiscal conservatives, said members had confused his bill with a measure offered by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to establish a “sunset commission” that calls for the automatic termination of agencies and programs unless Congress reaffirms their importance in a vote on the floor.

A vote on that bill, which is far more controversial and was also expected on the floor today, has been postponed until September. A GOP aide said RSC members agreed to the delay after leaders committed to supporting the bill and to bring it up under general-order rules rather than suspension, which requires more votes to pass.

Tiahrt said he had spoken to a number of his colleagues on the committee and has persuaded a few to support the bill.

John Scofield, spokesman for the Appropriations Committee, said that Lewis “had some concerns with the bill in its current form” but that his boss was not actively working against it.

The debate is another example of the split between appropriators and the RSC. Fiscal conservatives have become increasingly frustrated by their inability to rein in federal spending, while appropriators argue those efforts undermine their jurisdiction and cede more power to the executive branch.

Appropriators and members of the RSC have butted heads on the annual budget bill and the controversial issue of earmark reform, and have staged pitched battles on the House floor over each spending bill.

In exchange for supporting the budget, Pence secured a promise from House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring some version of so-called sunset legislation to a floor vote, along with promises to apply earmark reform to the Appropriations Committee, a vote on the line-item veto and floor time to debate budget-process reform.

Fiscal responsibility has become a major issue this election year, one that has spurred some conservatives to criticize the White House and their own GOP leaders for failing to limit spending. Despite those frustrations, RSC members did not discuss the issue at length during their weekly meeting yesterday, two aides in the room said afterward.

The leadership quelled a nascent revolt over the health-information-technology bill. Hospital interests were rankled when they learned Tuesday that “price transparency” language had been added to the bill and began pressing rank-and-file members to oppose the bill if the provisions remained.

The provisions would require hospitals and insurance companies to divulge the prices they charge and the fees they pay, respectively. Hospitals have bitterly opposed the policy, which is a White House priority and has many supporters on Capitol Hill.

With House Democrats all but united in opposition to the bill based on concerns about the privacy of electronic medical records, the hospital lobby’s last-minute campaign threatened the bill’s chances of passage.

But leaders appeared to have averted a potential crisis late yesterday afternoon. The language had been cut out, and the Federation of American Hospitals had issued a statement endorsing the bill.

The Senate unanimously adopted a much narrower health-IT bill last year that did not contain price-transparency language.

Fiscal responsibility and healthcare both figure prominently in the message House Republicans are planning to sell to voters during the August recess.

In addition to its regular recess kit, the House Republican Conference yesterday gave members laminated booklet listing the GOP’s legislative accomplishments on multiple issues to this point in the 109th Congress.

The 30-page booklet has separate sections on healthcare and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, according to a version obtained by The Hill. Passage of the line-item veto, the elimination of 95 federal programs and a 37 percent decrease in earmark spending were all listed in the two-page section on fiscal responsibility.

Tiahrt’s bill would give Congress and the president the power to establish a seven-member commission to review federal programs or agencies identified, respectively, by congressional resolutions or executive orders.

Commission members would consider whether the program or agency was effective or whether its mission was duplicated in other parts of the government or in the private sector.

After receiving the recommendations, the president would then have 30 days to send them to Congress in bill form. The measure would be “fast-tracked” from there — that is, debate and amendments would be limited more so than under normal parliamentary rules.

Chuck Knapp, Tiahrt’s spokesman, said the bill “would help Congress in its oversight of the federal government.”

House leaders put the Tiahrt measure on the calendar for a vote today.

While pitched as a compromise, the Tiahrt bill is not without critics, who argue that it gives power that now appropriately rests in Congress to a panel more removed from public scrutiny.

“Isn’t that what Congress is supposed to do? I thought that’s what we elected them to do, to do oversight of spending bill,” said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a group that often defends government regulations. “Congress is going to contract out its job?”