House GOP grapples with its transparency oath on budget deal

The eleventh-hour budget deal struck late last week poses a challenge for the promises that House Republicans made to increase transparency.

Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' MORE (R-Va.) has scheduled a vote on the final spending bill for Wednesday, but that timetable was in doubt Tuesday morning.

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Congressional appropriators had been scrambling to finish writing the bill and post it by midnight Monday, which would have allowed Republicans to hold a Wednesday vote while adhering to their requirement that lawmakers have at least three calendar days to read legislation that comes to the floor.

Because the legislation was not introduced until nearly 2 a.m. Tuesday, Republicans would have to waive the "three-day rule" or find a way around it.

The delay complicated efforts by the party leadership to assess support for the bipartisan deal. With a government shutdown looming again on Friday, officials in both parties expect the eventual bill to pass the House and Senate. But after a 2010 election campaign in which Republicans tarred Democrats for approving complex legislation they hadn’t read, lawmakers are hesitant to commit to the budget agreement without examining the fine print.

“A lot of people are waiting to see the final text before making a decision,” a House GOP leadership aide said Monday afternoon.

While the White House posted some details of the spending agreement on Saturday, Republican leaders have not circulated any details to members beyond the briefing they received from Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Ohio) when the deal was struck late Friday night, aides said.

Democrats were similarly in the dark over the weekend.

“You may not be surprised to hear this, but they’re still sifting through the areas where they are going to make cuts,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “You can’t find anybody today, actually, who knows exactly what cuts we’re proposing until probably the end of the day today, maybe early next week.”

Republicans say they can satisfy their rule that legislation be public for parts of at least three calendar days by posting the bill at any point Monday night, but in practice, members would have less than two days to read the bill. 

“It does violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule,” said Phineas Baxandall, program director for tax and budget policy at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

During a press conference last week, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE indicated he would not waive the transparency rule: “Well, in the House, you know, we have a three-day layover policy so people can actually read the bill.”

GOP aides acknowledged that if appropriators missed the midnight benchmark, the vote would be pushed to Thursday. That would squeeze the Senate, however, since both chambers must pass the agreement by Friday, when current funding under the one-week stopgap measure runs out.

Dozens of liberal and conservative House lawmakers are expected to oppose the agreement, but whether final passage would be threatened is unclear. After 28 Republicans broke with the party to oppose the stopgap measure early Saturday, Boehner is expected to need Democratic votes to pass the long-term measure.

Political observers will be watching in particular to see how many of the 87 members of the freshman class Boehner loses.

“We’ll get some of those votes, others we won’t,” Boehner said Monday on Fox News.

The last-minute accord has also opened both sides to criticism about the secretive, backroom nature of the negotiations. Republicans scored points by passing an initial spending bill in February under an open amendment process, but the decisions about what provisions ended up in the final legislation were made by only a handful of negotiators. 

While watchdog groups have praised Republicans and President Obama for eliminating earmarks in this year’s appropriations process, they plan to scrutinize the legislation for non-monetary policy items that were slipped in without public debate.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterBennet reintroduces bill to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever Red-state Democrats worry impeachment may spin out of control MORE (D-Mont.) on Saturday boasted that he had secured the inclusion of language delisting Montana wolves from the federal endangered species list. The issue generated little attention when lawmakers first tried to insert it into the original House measure, and a similar amendment was thrown out because it tried to legislate policy in an appropriations bill. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, also pushed for the wolf provision, which wildlife protection groups opposed.

“Those are policy issues. Those are not budget issues,” said Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause, coupling the wolf item with debates about abortion and environmental regulation that she argued were misplaced in the budget debate.

Baxandall said the wolf provision is “similar to an earmark in that it’s a special public set-aside for a particular vote. It doesn’t have to have a dollar amount to be the same as earmarks.”

This story was first posted at 8:02 p.m. on April 11.