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'Cromnibus' Strains GOP Principles on Open Process

Boehner put a brave face on the accelerated "cromnibus" process Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the House prepares to pass a trillion dollar, 1,603-page "cromnibus" Thursday, at least one criticism can be applied to both Republicans and Democrats when the bill comes to a vote: few lawmakers — if any — will have read the entire thing.  

It's not that a $1.1 trillion piece of legislation can — or should — be written in 140 characters like a tweet, or as a 4,543-word document, such as the Constitution. But the cromnibus, coming in at 289,861 words, represents a particularly challenging public relations moment for members of Congress. It's precisely the style of legislating that Speaker John A. Boehner ran against when he campaigned for the leadership job, vowing to give members at least 72 hours to read any measure before a vote. And it's the manifestation of the proverbial backroom deals that have angered so many voters for so long.  

Republicans have been strong proponents of the #ReadTheBill campaign — Boehner used the hashtag Wednesday, in fact — and the GOP has frequently castigated Democrats for dropping large pieces of legislation shortly before votes, particularly during the Obamacare days.  

As Rules Committee Democrats pointed out Wednesday, Boehner said in December 2010 that he didn't believe "having 2,000-page bills on the House floor serves anyone’s best interest — not the House, not for the members and certainly not for the American people."  

But Boehner defended the cromnibus process Wednesday morning, saying the bill had been negotiated in a "bipartisan, bicameral fashion," and that legislators had worked as quickly as they could to get text of the trillion dollar deal to lawmakers.  

“When we get to the end of a two-year session of Congress, a lot of work gets built up that never gets across one floor or the other floor," Boehner said. "And as a result, when we get to the end of session, members are trying to find a way to get their legislation across the finish line."  

That won't exactly reverse the narrative that the end of the year spending measure is, in congressional parlance, a "Christmas tree," with individual lawmakers hanging their own parochial ornaments on the bill. It may, at least, challenge the storyline of a "do-nothing" Congress.  

Boehner preferred to focus on the big picture.  

Pressed on whether leaders were trying to jam members — or jam the Senate — by providing so little time for that chamber to consider the legislation, Boehner insisted it took this long to put the bill together. “When you look at the number of agreements that had to be struck — on funding levels, on riders and other provisions — there’s a lot in this bill, and the appropriators did a, frankly, marvelous job," the Ohio Republican said. "I wish it had been done last week, but it wasn’t.  

"And so here we are," Boehner continued, "I’m proud of the work that they’ve done, look forward to it passing with bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate in the coming days.”  

The bill will technically comply with the so-called three-day rule, which insists legislation be available three days before a vote is taken. Under GOP rules, a bill could be voted on in 24 hours and two seconds — one second each for the first and last days — and still comply with the three-day rule. Or Republicans can just waive the rule, as they've done in the past  and as they'll have to do if they vote on a two- or three-day continuing resolution.  

Regardless, the cromnibus will almost certainly need votes from both Republicans and Democrats to clear the House. But passage might not go as smoothly as everyone assumes. Reception from Democrats has been grim , and many Republicans won't vote for the cromnibus regardless of whether they read the bill.  

Before the legislative text came out, GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan said it was difficult for him to imagine voting for any legislation that incorporated the appropriations bills he'd already voted against. This spending deal was probably never going to get the blessing of the Justin Amashes of Congress. The question was always whether it'd get lawmakers in the middle — and not providing sufficient time to read the bill might complicate such efforts.  

"I don't vote on things that don't get read," Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said Wednesday morning, "so I got a lot of work ahead of me."  

When CQ Roll Call told Farenthold that, if he averaged 200 words a minute of the dense legislative text, it would take him 24 hours to read the bill, he seemed to understand the herculean task before him.  

"Exactly," he said, "it's going to be an issue."  

Of course, members can divvy up the bill among their staff or rely on summaries, such as the 10-page document GOP leadership gave members Wednesday morning, or they could just wing it — understanding the broad strokes of the bill. As Amash points out, much of what comprises the bill has already gone through the House.  

The dense nature of the bill can be an advantage for undecided lawmakers. Because some will insist on reading the bill, or as much of it as they can, before making up their minds, any member can reasonably refuse to say where exactly they stand on the cromnibus until the last minute.  

And the condensed timeline also works for leadership, which is banking on enough lawmakers preferring the spending bill to a government shutdown.  

There's insufficient time to make real changes to the bill. And despite the grumblings of lawmakers on both sides, it may end up as a "take it or leave it" proposition.  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.    

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