Spending clash looms for GOP

Spending clash looms for GOP
© Haiyun Jiang

The two top Republicans in Congress are pursuing strikingly different strategies on spending bills this year, setting up a possible collision when funding for the government is scheduled to expire just weeks before the presidential election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE is betting control of the upper chamber on the argument that Republicans know how to govern. The Kentucky Republican says order has now been restored in the Senate, bashing Democrats’ “dysfunction” during the reign of former Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP’s midterm strategy takes shape Battle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest Senate Democrats should stop playing politics on Kavanaugh MORE (D-Nev.).

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One of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNew Dem ad uses Paterno, KKK, affair allegations to tar GOP leaders House Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Rand Paul to ask Trump to lift sanctions on Russian leaders MORE’s (R-Wis.) top priorities is to fulfill his pledge to give rank-and-file members more input into the legislative process. Ryan’s predecessor, former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Freedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority MORE (R-Ohio), was pressured out of his job by a group of dissident conservatives.

Senate Republicans are concerned these clashing priorities will undercut their efforts to get Congress working again. Passing spending bills under regular order in the Senate will have less appeal with voters if they only pile up into a year-end wreck that requires summit talks with President Obama and House leaders to sort out. 

If the House fails to keep pace with the Senate, lawmakers fear spending bills will get jammed into a massive late-year omnibus package or default to a multimonth stopgap measure.

“The Speaker has said all the right things about going forward, and he’s given his membership an opportunity to vote on fairly open rules, but if they’re not going to respond by passing these bills and he wants these bills, he’s going to have to tighten up the rules on them. It’s a tough decision to make, but it’s a decision that can be made,” said Jim Dyer, who served 13 years as the Republican staff director and clerk of the House Appropriations Committee.

“You have this basic division, and the division is: Do you want to move appropriations bills and run the government, or do you want to make a series of ideological statements that may not be popular with the majority of the Congress? And that’s the call you make up there,” he said.

McConnell, who is seeking to protect his fragile majority in November, has made his call. He wants to run the government and avoid any talk of a shutdown, even if that means holding red meat back from conservatives.

Ryan wants to get things done, though he’s not yet gone so far as to put his colleagues on a tighter leash to make bills easier to pass. Unlike McConnell, Ryan has a large majority that is unlikely to flip this fall. But controversial bills in the House — especially funding bills — usually need Democratic votes to pass.

McConnell and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranGOP Senate candidate doubles down on Robert E. Lee despite Twitter poll GOP Senate candidate polls followers on whether Robert E. Lee was hero or villain Mississippi courthouse named for Thad Cochran MORE (R-Miss.) have been careful to keep poison-pill riders off their spending bills. As a result, eight have passed the committee unanimously and, for the first time in decades, the Senate is well ahead of the House in getting its spending work done.

“There’s an understanding on both sides we can get these bills out of committee and address some stickier issues on the Senate floor,” said a GOP aide of the working relationship between Senate Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations panel.

Ryan has not imposed similar discipline on his House colleagues, giving them free rein to work their will, but with mixed results. While he made good on his promise for a more open process, House spending bills have hit a wall.

Under the Speaker’s open process, Democrats last week attached to the energy and water projects spending bill an amendment barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It caused scores of Republicans to peel off from the underlying bill, which failed in a lopsided 112-305 roll call, raising questions about whether Ryan’s team will be able to muscle through any more bills or if the appropriations process is dead for the year.  

If the LGBT amendment, sponsored by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), hadn’t found its way onto the bill, there’s a good chance the measures would have failed anyhow; Democrats were poised to vote against it en masse because it was full of conservative policy riders.

“Even before the energy and water bill came to the floor, there were all these things on it that we see year in and year out and that the president has veto threats on,” said Matt Dennis, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats.

“We’re not going to enact an appropriations law when you put in riders undermining the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and firearms law,” he added.

Ryan likely needed Democratic votes to pass the bill: A group of conservatives is concerned that it costs too much because it is in line with the $1.07 trillion top-line spending limit set by last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act. Conservatives oppose that number because it busts the cuts known as sequestration that Congress enacted in 2011.

Meanwhile, McConnell penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Monday emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in moving legislation.

“What seems to have been forgotten is that it’s not an act of betrayal to work with one’s political adversaries when doing so is good for the country,” he wrote.

He argued that moving bills to make ideological statements might excite activists but usually leads to a dead end.

“Admittedly, none of the bills we’ve passed would get the average primary voter on his or her feet. But compared with the legislative graveyard of the prior several years, the new Republican-led Senate looked like an Amazon fulfillment center,” he wrote.   

Ryan hasn’t made any decision yet about whether the House will stay the course with its freewheeling process. House Republicans will need to have a “family discussion” after this week’s Memorial Day recess to decide whether any changes are needed, Ryan told reporters after last week’s debacle.

Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, reaffirmed that plan on Tuesday: “Family discussions continue about the path forward on spending bills.”

“Members wanted an open process, so leadership is fulfilling the members’ desire,” a GOP leadership aide explained. “Moving forward, members might want to reevaluate the process, but the bottom line is members want appropriations to keep moving forward.”

Ryan has told colleagues they need to take a more pragmatic approach to passing bills, but his advice often falls on deaf ears.

“We have too little trust. Our problem in our conference is not lack of leadership, it’s lack of followership,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Appropriations Committee who said Ryan had assured conservatives that the LGBT amendment would have been stripped out in later negotiations.

He said the problems caused by controversial policy riders aren’t Ryan’s fault.

“Sometimes members have to learn by going through the experience themselves,” Cole said. “You have to ask yourself whether it’s worth derailing a $37 billion bill about which three-quarters of which is to our nuclear stockpile, to upgrade and test our own nuclear arsenal — we’re going to throw that out on the culture wars issue? Really?”