House Democrats keep pressure on Obama on NPR funding bill

House Democrats upped the pressure on President Obama to stand firm on continued funding for National Public Radio with a unanimous show of support for the broadcaster last week.

Without even a nudge from party leaders, all 185 voting Democrats rejected a Republican bill Thursday that would eliminate NPR’s federal cash. The bill passed the House 228-192.

The unanimous vote sends “a very powerful signal to the Senate and the White House,” according to Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University.

“Anything that brings together Heath Shuler and Maxine Waters,” Baker said, is sure to gain notice from other Democratic leaders. He was referring to the two Democratic lawmakers, a centrist North Carolinian and a liberal from California, respectively.
Although the White House said it “strongly opposes” the defunding measure, it stopped short of threatening to veto it.

Senate Democratic leaders are similarly opposed, saying they won’t bring the NPR bill to the floor. But Republicans could offer it as an amendment to other measures, and similar language was included in a House-passed bill to fund the government through September — a proposal Republican leaders want reconsidered when Congress returns next week.

Talks on the long-term continuing resolution are ongoing between Senate Democrats, House Republicans and the White House.

NPR stirred unflattering headlines in recent weeks after a conservative activist taped the network’s top fundraising executive, Ron Schiller, criticizing the Tea Party movement. Schiller resigned this month. Shortly afterward, the company’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller (not related to Ron), also resigned under pressure from NPR’s board of directors.

The scandal encouraged Republicans, who have alleged for years that NPR reports with a liberal bias.

Citing the budget savings, House GOP leaders on Thursday rushed legislation to the floor to bar NPR from receiving federal funding. Sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the bill would also prohibit public radio stations from using taxpayer dollars to buy programming from any source.

“In an era of 500-channel cable TV and live streaming video over the Internet, there is no need for taxpayer subsidized media,” Lamborn said in a statement.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Lamborn bill wouldn’t save taxpayers any money.

Mike Riksen, NPR’s vice president for policy and representation, said the Republican bill was designed to erode public radio broadcasting altogether. Limiting a station’s programming, he said, will reduce its audience, which in turn will eat away its fundraising powers.

“It disrupts the public radio program model, and it disrupts a station’s ability to generate revenue,” he said.

House Democrats of all political stripes agreed, leading to a unified vote that’s been rare this year on bills not whipped by party leaders. Indeed, two recent votes on temporary government spending bills — that included billions of dollars in cuts this year — split the Democratic Caucus practically in half. Neither one was whipped by the leadership, which instead allowed members to vote how they wished.

A Democratic leadership aide said that, on the NPR vote, Republicans underestimated “the importance of public radio in rural areas, where there’s not a lot of coverage.”

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, echoed that sentiment.

“This senseless bill would have a devastating impact on Western North Carolina and other rural areas, where funding for public radio is already scarce and stations depend on federal funding to stay on air,” Shuler said in a statement shortly after Thursday’s vote.

The White House issued a statement of administration policy (SAP) on Thursday, saying it “strongly opposes” the Lamborn bill.

“Undercutting funding for these radio stations, notably ones in rural areas where such outlets are already scarce, would result in communities losing valuable programming, and some stations could be forced to shut down altogether,” the SAP reads.

Some Democrats are assuming that Obama would veto the measure if it were to reach his desk, but the White House this week still didn’t commit to that approach.

“The current [White House] position on the bill is reflected in the SAP, which speaks for itself,” said Meg Reilly, spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is also opposed to the bill. Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said Wednesday that Senate Democrats won’t bring it to the floor.

Observers on and off Capitol Hill said the White House is likely reserving its veto threats for bills with better odds of actually clearing the Senate and reaching Obama’s desk.

“There’s a kind of political economy to veto threats,” said Baker, of Rutgers. “You don’t want to issue too many of them.”

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