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Confederate Flap Imperils GOP Goal to Finish Spending Bills by August

Rogers is not optimistic about getting the spending bills done by August. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last week's messy fight over Confederate flag amendments to the Interior-Environment spending measure — which culminated in pulling the bill from the House floor — has thrown the legislative calendar into flux.  

Republican leaders, unable to pass the seventh of the 12 annual spending bills, are now no longer planning to bring up the eighth fiscal 2016 Financial Services-General Government this week. It's unclear whether this puts the brakes on the rest of the appropriations process of which Republican leadership had been so proud, moving measures through the legislative pipeline at the fastest clip in decades — even though the bills never stood a chance of begin signed into law under Democratic opposition and presidential veto threats.  

In any event, Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., told reporters Friday he could guarantee at least one thing: "It's gonna be next to impossible" to get all 12 bills done before the August recess, a bragging-rights goal the GOP once considered within its reach.  

Republicans, however, do expect to put legislation on the floor this week to address the crippling California drought. Its lead sponsor is Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., but a champion of the measure is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who will no doubt play a major role in ensuring the bill's passage with strong party support.  

As is the case more often than not, they'll be battling significant Democratic opposition.  

Many Democrats are uneasy about the extent to which the bill would loosen existing environmental protections for fish and repeals the terms of a legal settlement between environmental groups and government agencies related to restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River.  

It's also opposed by the Interior Department, which in a letter last week stated the bill "fails to equitably address critical elements of California's complex water challenges."  

An ongoing project for the next three weeks will be building consensus around a plan to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from going insolvent by the time its current extension expires at the end of the month.  

At a recent pen-and-pad session with reporters, Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., laid out his pending proposal for an $8 billion patch through the end of the year — paid for by "fairly innocuous boring stuff" — to buy time to come up with a six-year highway bill, perhaps in coordination with a major overhaul of international tax laws.  

House Democrats, who say they've grown tired of can-kicking, are going to have to make a calculation about whether or not they will oppose a stopgap solution as a way to force GOP action on a long-term plan.  

A growing number of rank-and-file House Republicans could put up a fight, too. A bipartisan coalition of four Republicans and six Democrats last week signed a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling for a "Queen of the Hill" approach to pry a transportation and infrastructure funding bill out of the House.  

The procedural gambit, used earlier this year for the fiscal 2016 House budget resolution, would put a number of related bills on the floor for votes, with the highest vote-earner being the one that gets reported out of the chamber. The bipartisan coalition, led by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., argues that any viable proposal should get an up-or-down vote, including multi-year reauthorizations of the Highway Trust Fund plus whatever short-term fix Ryan and GOP leadership put forth.  

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., one of the letter's co-signers, said at a July 10 news conference he had mentioned the "Queen of the Hill" idea to McCarthy, and the California Democrat "didn't say 'no,' let me put it that way."  

The tough road ahead for Welch, Ribble and their allies was underscored by this response from McCarthy's spokesman a few hours later to an inquiry by CQ Roll Call: "McCarthy is currently working with Chairmen Ryan and [Bill] Shuster [of Transportation and Infrastructure] on highways."  

Ryan said at his pen-and-pad briefing he hadn't been informed of the burgeoning effort by his colleagues: "I haven't even heard that."  

A Pelosi aide noted the minority leader has publicly and privately urged Boehner to set up "Queen of the Hill" scenarios under which "there are multiple votes that allow a reasonable proposal to advance and irresponsible proposals to fall away."  

Tamar Hallerman, Lindsey McPherson and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.  

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