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Rogers Struggles for Middle Ground Against House Anti-Spending Zeal

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., wants to stick with higher budget caps and may be swimming against the tide of his conference. (File Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers might just have the toughest assignment in Congress this year.

In his final round atop the once-heralded spending committee, the Kentucky Republican faces the unenviable task of crafting spending bills amid an anti-spending fervor that has gridlocked the House GOP conference as members wrestle over a budget resolution for fiscal 2017.

On one hand, House conservatives are clamoring to shoot down the higher discretionary spending levels provided by last year’s bipartisan budget agreement – a deal that was, in theory, supposed to make this year’s appropriations process run more smoothly.

On the other hand, Democrats warn that straying from the budget deal (PL 114-74) will blow up any chance of bipartisan buy-in needed to funnel spending bills through the Senate and to the White House.

Rogers and other Republican appropriators who want to stick to the higher budget caps may be swimming against the tide of their conference.

Plans for a budget resolution laid out before the Republican conference last week by Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., were met with skepticism from influential House conservatives, including the leaders of the hard line Freedom Caucus and the 170-plus-member Republican Study Committee.

Republican leadership is still gauging support for the budget proposal, which would maintain the higher discretionary levels and seek $30 billion in mandatory savings over two fiscal years. But it’s unclear if a promise of mandatory cuts will sway enough Republican members to reach the 218 votes necessary to pass a budget resolution that allows higher discretionary spending right away.

The momentum behind fiscal hawks pushing to scrap the caps has put Rogers and his allies on the committee in a tough spot – and even found him a bit of common ground with the opposition.

“Like Chairman Rogers, I believe the appropriations process should proceed through regular order, at the spending levels enacted into law by Democrats and Republicans just three months ago,” said Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations. “I hope majority leadership can summon the will to ignore the most extreme voices in their conference who would renege on the bipartisan budget agreement and stop the appropriations process in its track.”

To top it off, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has set a sky-high bar for the committee.

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have repeatedly cited a return to “regular order” and passage of all 12 individual spending bills – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1994 – as a top goal for 2016.

26 Hearings

Meanwhile, the committee has been moving full speed ahead and putting in the legwork for the appropriations bills to come – the prospects for which remain uncertain. The committee scheduled 26 hearings last week, after holding 20 meetings the week before.

Rogers has been highly visible, darting in and out of simultaneous subcommittee hearings and sparring with administration officials on everything from border security to marijuana legalization.

“This is encouraging to hear this, but I believe that old saying of trusting and verifying,” Rogers warned Attorney General Loretta Lynch after a frank discussion on addressing so-called sanctuary cities.

At another hearing, blasting what he described as a costly photocopying process at the Army Corps of Engineers that he said put environmental groups ahead of mine permit applicants, Rogers lamented, “That’s not the America that I thought I used to know.”

At this point, appropriators say they’re working with the budget deal top-lines until they hear otherwise.

“We have I think the numbers we need,” said Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the Defense Subcommittee, in February. “We're going to be proceeding and giving probably our majority the opportunity to do its stuff.”

Left and Right

Rogers has laughed off the notion that he has the hardest job on Capitol Hill.

“Oh no, there’s been many, many more tough jobs,” he told CQ Roll Call last month.

But there’s little doubt the 18-term congressman is facing an unusual host of challenges from all sides.

Take his recent fending off of attempts left and right to charge appropriators with adding or cutting mandatory spending, which is outside the committee’s jurisdiction.

Budget Committee members were previously weighing a budget framework with an option for tagging mandatory spending cuts to the next batch of appropriations bills. Rogers made clear he wasn’t thrilled with the idea, which reportedly has since been abandoned in favor of standalone legislation cutting mandatory programs.

“What I don't want us to do is blow up the process, make it impossible to pass bills,” he told CQ Roll Call. Rogers later said he’s long been preaching for mandatory spending cuts – “So long as it’s not attached to or part of the appropriations bill, I have no problem with that.”

At the same time, he’s been swatting down numerous proposals included in the White House budget request for new mandatory spending, which Republican appropriators have widely panned as a blatant attempt to circumvent the budget caps.

“Mandatory grows willy-nilly," Rogers told a top administration official at another hearing. “That's why it's a difficult thing for us to contend with.”

Rogers and his team maintain they aren’t fazed by the obstacles ahead, which also include the usual fights over spending levels and policy riders and a congressional calendar featuring long swaths of time away from Washington.

“The chairman and our members remain fully committed to regular order and to completing all 12 appropriations bills this year,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Rogers. “It will be a challenge, but the House and Senate can and should get this vital work done on behalf of the American people.”

What Comes Next

Rogers is due to hand over his gavel next year after three terms as the chamber’s appropriator-in-chief, the limit under House Republican rules. Frelinghuysen, the senior-most member behind Rogers, is considered a favorite to take over the panel.

Speculation has swirled around what Rogers will do next – he’s previously expressed interest in taking over a subcommittee, but hasn’t yet divulged any definitive plans.

“Haven’t thought about it,” he told CQ Roll Call last month.

He’s got enough on his plate for now.

Paul Krawzak, David Lerman and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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