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Roll Call

Spending Bill Risks GOP Defectors

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner (center) has not yet said whether he is prepared to bring legislation to the House floor that would fund the president's health care law and that would pass with mostly Democratic votes.

Are 100-plus Republican “no” votes the new normal for House-passed spending bills?

With little time remaining before Congress departs for the holidays, House leaders are eyeing an omnibus that would wrap up nine remaining fiscal 2012 appropriations bills. The vehicle could also include a series of expiring items to the bill, anything from extending the payroll tax cut to heading off a pay cut to Medicare doctors. The expansive approach has earned the package its “megabus” moniker.

Members and aides from the ranks of both appropriators and hard-line conservatives say they expect it to pass with mostly Democratic votes.

“I’d guess we’ll see another 100-plus Republicans vote ‘no’ on the megabus. This is apparently the new governing coalition on major items: Most Democrats plus Republicans who still trust leadership that they’ll eventually do the right thing,” a GOP House aide said.

Of the nine remaining bills, the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill is the most contentious because it includes funding for the new health care law.

Republican and Democratic negotiators remain miles apart on the Labor-HHS measure, an appropriations aide said.

From the perspective of Republican appropriators, their party’s negotiating position was weakened when 101 Republicans voted “no” on the recent three-bill minibus.

“Without sufficient Republican votes, Labor-HHS will have to pass with Democrat votes and with Obamacare funding in it,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), adding, “If Republicans stick together, we’ll be in a much stronger position on Labor-HHS.”

Asked whether Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is prepared to bring legislation to the House floor that would fund the president’s health care law and that would pass with mostly Democratic votes, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel declined to comment.

The move would not be entirely without precedent. In August, at the height of brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling, Boehner conceded ground on a number of key policy riders, including those that would limit funding for the health care law.

Included in that deal, however, was $900 billion in immediate spending cuts, statutory spending caps, a vote on the balanced budget amendment and $1.2 trillion in “sequestered” spending cuts.

Erica Elliott, a spokeswoman for Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said when asked about expectations that the package would pass with more than 100 Republican defectors, “We know our appropriators are working day and night to negotiate legislation that Republicans can support, so we’re confident we’ll have a strong vote when this legislation is brought to the floor.”

The short timeline — the current continuing resolution expires Dec. 16 — combined with the large number of legislative priorities on the docket and weariness from spending battles waged all year have Members’ tempers fraying.

McCarthy, for instance, unloaded on House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) at a closed-door Whip meeting late Tuesday, two aides present at the meeting said.

Dreier had taken to the House floor Nov. 17 to explain why he was voting against the balanced budget amendment, undercutting the GOP’s spending message.

“McCarthy was furious that the chairman of the Rules Committee — the Speaker’s Committee — used the Committee’s time on the floor to hang the rest of the Republican Conference out to dry on a bill they strongly support. The freshmen in particular were upset about that, and McCarthy was defending them,” said one of the aides.

Dreier and McCarthy have a bit of a history. In late August, McCarthy quashed a Dreier-led effort to oppose California’s new Congressional map via ballot initiative. Dreier’s district was dismantled by the new district lines.

Meanwhile, some freshman Members have expressed a desire to vote for omnibus legislation with spending levels consistent with the House-passed budget before voting on the final bill, which has numbers consistent with the August debt ceiling deal.

Add in conservative anxiety about extending the payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits, which are Democratic priorities, and the situation is a tinder box, Members and aides say.

Two factors are giving the appropriators leverage to push against brinkmanship with the Senate and President Barack Obama.

First is the coming holiday break. As Christmas approaches, many Members will want to return home.

“There are a lot of discussions going on in this building about how we’re going to get out of here over the next two-and-a-half weeks,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday.

The second factor is, after the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, a desire to do something — to show that Congress can act.

“The Speaker said this morning, ‘No CR,’” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said about Boehner’s remarks at a Wednesday morning conference meeting.

“He didn’t want to do a CR, he told the conference, because a CR would have lower defense numbers, is one observation that he made. And it was his objective to get the appropriations process finished,” LaTourette said. Following the megabus approach would allow all sides an opportunity to insert some of their priorities.

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