Reid unites grumbling caucus, has votes to pass spending bill

Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has united his Democratic colleagues to support a funding bill that would avert a government shutdown.

The coalescence of Democrats means the Senate will likely pass a funding bill and throw the ball back to the Republican-led House later this week.

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Reid’s ability to forge a consensus within his caucus — despite the grumbling of liberals — stood in contrast to the Senate GOP conference, which split Tuesday over the tactics for defunding ObamaCare.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a prominent liberal and senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he wished Reid had taken a different approach.

He said he thought Reid should have boosted the funding level to force Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) hand.

“I would have tried it and sent it to the House and let them cut it back again, but I guess my advice was not taken,” he said. “I think a lot of us wanted him to go at that $1.058 [trillion] level. I would still like to do it at that level.

Instead, Reid will adopt the level set by the House, $986.3 billion, which continues current funding levels.

“There’s a big difference between $986 billion and $1.058 trillion that could help us out a lot,” Harkin said.

Nevertheless, he will support Reid.

“Am I happy? No. Will I support it in the spirit of compromise? Yes,” said Harkin.

Reid argued Tuesday that the spending level of a stopgap doesn’t matter because the total amount of discretionary spending for fiscal 2014 is subject to a limit set by the Budget Control Act and automatic cuts known as sequestration.

Labor unions and liberal advocacy groups, however, have come out strongly against the House funding level.

Reid’s acceptance of the House GOP’s number could set up a clash with House Democrats, who have panned it as too low.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant House Democratic leader, said Tuesday he wanted the Senate to use the stopgap to increase funding levels.

“I would hope the Senate would put in language to eliminate the sequester as well, because I’m fearful that if the numbers come back through us, sequester still in place, I’m afraid that [Office of Management and Budget] will fund at a much lower level or would authorize funding at a much lower level, thereby baking in the sequester,” he said in an MSNBC interview.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) told reporters he did not know of any Senate Democrats who will vote “no.”

“I feel good about it, but we haven’t done a hard whip count,” he said.

The picture was different in the Republican Conference, which argued over tactics at a lunch down the hallway from where Democrats were meeting.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and members of his leadership team argued for ending debate on the House-passed continuing resolution to allow it to reach a final vote.

“Invoking cloture on a bill that defunds ObamaCare, doesn’t raise taxes and respects the Budget Control Act, it strikes me as a no-brainer,” McConnell later told reporters.

Because of procedural reasons, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his allies are seeking to thwart the House-passed appropriations measure.

McConnell, who is facing a primary challenge, also urged his colleagues to shorten the Senate debate as much as possible to give Boehner more time to react to whatever changes the Senate makes to the stopgap.

“My own view is, it would be to the advantage of our colleagues in the House ... to shorten the process,” he said.

Yet McConnell acknowledged he has little control over whether his own conference will let that happen.

“Any one senator can object to any effort to shorten the process,” he said.

Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), two Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers spearheading an aggressive approach to defund the Affordable Care Act, pushed back against McConnell.

Cruz took to the Senate floor after the lunch to deliver a multi-hour speech urging colleagues against voting to end debate. He says that voting to set up final passage will allow Reid to strip language defunding ObamaCare with a simple majority vote.

Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said his boss does not want to yield back time — at least not yet — because he wants to have as much time as possible to persuade colleagues to support filibustering the stopgap.

“Those who support cloture on the bill are supporting procedural tricks to help Reid cut the bill,” he said.

He said Cruz and Lee “still have an opportunity to explain to colleagues why they should oppose cloture on the bill.”

McConnell warned the aggressive approach could backfire by extending the Senate debate and giving Boehner little time to respond to Senate-passed changes.

“I do know that if the House doesn’t get what we send over there until Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” he said.

Reid countered that if Boehner tries to tinker with the Senate’s version of the bill, “that is a surefire way to shut down the government.”

Reid said he will shorten the House-passed continuing resolution to 45 days to increase the likelihood of Senate and House negotiators reaching a deal later this year to pass the annual appropriations bills.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) hope that will put pressure on Republicans to discuss a budget agreement to replace sequestration.

Bernie Becker contributed.

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