On domestic spending, it’s been assumed all year that the two halves of Congress were on a collision course.
What came as a stunning surprise was how the appropriations process crashed in the House on Wednesday — or, as those with knowledge of congressional lingo can appreciate best — how it landed with a thud.
Senators are on course to decide Thursday whether they’ll do their part to assure the impasse is locked down even earlier than expected, before the August recess starts and more than eight weeks before Congress must either reach at least a stopgap agreement or be complicit in the first partial government shutdown in nearly two decades.
The Senate will vote to either advance or spike its version of the Transportation-HUD bill for fiscal 2014, which goes by the totally awkward acronym of THUD. (Many on the Hill revel in pronouncing it like the word for heavy blow, but appropriations purists insist the proper thing to say is “tea hud.”)
Whatever you call it, the legislation is now an irreparable mess. And so it’s become the best available example of what President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans brought on themselves precisely two years ago, when they sealed the deal that raised the debt ceiling but started Washington down its slippery slope into the sequester.
Top Republicans decided to halt debate on the House’s version of the bill, probably never to be seen again, once they realized it had no chance of passage. They quickly concluded that presiding over the second high-profile defeat in a month of a bill of their side’s own making (the farm bill being the other) would further amplify their reputation as a majority leadership with steadily eroding control over its own troops — and thereby over the one slice of the government the public has elected them to run.
But abandoning the bill was also a tacit concession that the House GOP high command’s strategy for the fall fiscal fight has fallen apart.
The bill foundered not only because a couple dozen conservative Republicans thought it would spend too much, but also because a small but pivotal number of Republican moderates had joined virtually all the Democrats viewing the depth of the proposed cuts as too deep.
At $44.1 billion, the grand total would be 9 percent below the level now mandated by the across-the-board spending cuts. Such politically popular programs as grants for public works projects, subsidies for Amtrak and community planning and development aid are among the hardest hit.
In other words, opposition to the THUD bill refuted the assumption that House Republicans would stand united against the efforts by Democrats and the president to relax the spending strictures enshrined in law two summers ago and reaffirmed when the House adopted its latest budget in the spring.
“With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago,” Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, a normally reserved Kentuckian, said in a statement brimming with annoyance and frustration. “Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: Sequestration, and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts, must be brought to an end.”
Rogers called for negotiations to begin as soon as possible between congressional leaders and Obama on a plan to replace those projected savings with plans to reduce entitlements. That way, he said, appropriators could once again write bills that not only provide “responsible” amounts for programs but also garner enough votes to clear Congress.
Thursday’s crucial test vote in the Senate will define the level of Republican support there for ignoring the law’s budget caps.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working hard to filibuster the Senate THUD bill to death because it would spend $54 billion, or 12 percent more than the current sequester limit. He thinks allowing that amount now would be a concession from Republicans that they’re not much interested in playing budget brinkmanship with Obama and the Democrats.
The House has passed four of its spending bills, but all of them are about financing the military and other national security programs, so they enjoyed solid bipartisan support even though they also flirted with the other side of the budget caps. The THUD bill was the first one to come before the House that tested interest in keeping inside the boundaries on the domestic side of the deal.
Senate Democrats chose to debate their THUD appropriations bill first, in contrast, to underscore the dramatic differences between the two chambers and thereby push the process toward a faster resolution. (The House and Senate THUD bills are $10 billion apart, and in total the two chambers’ budgets for discretionary programs are $91 billion apart.)
One way to handicap the coming cloture vote is this: At least six Republicans will break with McConnell to advance the bill, and potentially the number could be much more than that, as much for the budget rationale as for reasons of institutional ego.
If there’s one thing senators crave as much as a boarding pass home for August, it’s that rare opportunity to make their place of business look more functional than the House.