McConnell tries to tamp Senate GOP revolt over spending levels

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is trying to contain a GOP rebellion on spending levels, a struggle that has major implications for budget negotiations this fall.

Nineteen Republicans voted Tuesday to advance a motion to begin debate on a bill funding the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, even though McConnell says the bill will bust the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

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The Republicans who voted yes include four lawmakers who voted to approve the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, even though McConnell explicitly urged them not to break the BCA’s spending levels.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pounced on Tuesday’s vote to claim leverage in the spending fight that is heating up ahead of a fall deadline.

“Six Republicans voted to get it out of the Appropriations Committee. Nineteen voted to bring it onto the floor here,” Reid told reporters.

He used the bipartisan support for the legislation to bash House Republicans for supporting lower funding levels.

“This is really a common-sense jobs bill, a bill that we used to do all the time. So it’s a shame that instead of focusing on the middle class, our colleagues in the House are obsessed with appeasing the Tea Party,” he said.

The White House has threatened to veto any spending bills unless there is a bipartisan budget plan that “supports our recovery” and allows for necessary investments.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has accused President Obama of threatening to shutdown the government unless he receives “job-destroying tax hikes.”

The Senate GOP defections hurt both McConnell’s and Boehner’s leverage.

Two other Senate Republicans voted for the bill in committee, but one of them, Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), missed the floor vote, and Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.) on Tuesday voted against the motion. Moran is head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

McConnell urged Republican members of the Appropriations Committee in a meeting June 26 not to support the legislation because it broke the cap set by the 2011 budget deal, according to a GOP senator who attended.

“He was urging us not to break the BCA cap,” the lawmaker said.

But that plea didn’t resonate on the transportation bill, which costs $10 billion more than what the GOP-held House allocated. It would spend $2.4 billion more than what Obama requested.

In addition to Moran and Hoeven, Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also backed it on June 27.

Those lawmakers and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also voted in committee for the Energy and Water appropriations bill, which exceeds the level set by House Republicans by $4.3 billion. It exceeds Obama’s request by $290 million.

McConnell spoke out Tuesday in favor of the House spending levels, which he argues accurately reflects the budget deal Congress approved in summer 2011.

“I think our main goal going into the year-end discussion is to not walk away from the bipartisan agreement that we made two years ago to reduce spending,” he told reporters.

“The House of Representatives, nearly as I can tell, is following the law in putting together their appropriation bills,” he added. “My view is that we should do what we promised two years ago, and that’ll be my goal going into the — to the final discussions.”

A senior Democratic aide strongly disputed McConnell’s claim that the bipartisan spending bill would violate last Congress’s budget deal.

The staffer said the spending levels set by the House violate the BCA because they shield defense programs from the automatic cuts known as sequestration and pay for it by cutting nondefense domestic programs far in excess of what the 2011 budget deal envisioned.

“They bust through the Budget Control Act on the defense side and bring defense numbers to the pre-sequester levels,” the aide said of the House GOP spending bills. “They do that by cutting everything else down to far below post-sequester levels.”

A senior Republican aide argued the vote to end debate on the motion to proceed to the transportation spending bill is less significant than the committee vote because the Senate could vote to cut funding on the floor.

“The vote that conservatives are focused on is cloture on final passage if the bill can’t be improved,” the aide said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the 19 Republicans who voted to advance the motion, said he wants to have a chance to debate and amend the legislation.

McCain said, “I just want to have amendments ... we need to have amendments to move forward and debate. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

But conservative critics, including the Club for Growth’s Andy Roth, panned that rationale.

“These procedural votes that advance bad policy are just as bad as the policy itself,” he said. “So it doesn’t fly.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been negotiating with colleagues and administration officials for months in hopes of reaching a deficit-reduction deal, expressed disbelief that Republicans would vote for a measure that exceeds the budget caps.

“I can’t even imagine us considering appropriations bills that are above the Budget Control Act [spending levels],” Corker said after voting against the motion to advance the transportation bill. “It feels like an out-of-body experience that we would even be looking at appropriations bills that bust the budget cap.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, argued Tuesday the bill should not have come to the floor.

“The Senate is still on a precarious path,” he said. “The majority is pursuing a top-line discretionary spending level of $1.058 trillion for the fiscal year 2014. This exceeds the Budget Control Act level by over $90 billion.”

Reid turned up the temperature of the budget debate Tuesday by declaring that he will oppose any stopgap measure to keep government operating beyond the end of September if it reflects spending levels set by the House GOP.

Asked if he would support a continuing resolution that sets government funding at the $967 billion level favored by Republicans, Reid said, “I can’t speak for other Democrats. I wouldn’t.”

He warned that keeping government funding levels at post-sequester levels would have dangerous consequences for the U.S. economy.

“Let’s see what the House winds up doing. I think it would be a disaster for this country, and I would do everything within my ability to oppose that,” he said.