House Democratic leaders succeeded in holding back all but 19 of their members on the first appropriations vote of the season without even formally whipping against the Republican bill.
It's a sign the Democratic caucus is putting a plan in motion to try to stymie GOP appropriations bills one by one, until Republicans reach a breaking point and agree to reconsider the current sequester-level spending caps. "It will be tough to pass these bills," Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., conceded Thursday afternoon, hours before the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations vote. The bill passed, 255-163, but only after an anxious 24 hours leading up to the vote for House GOP leaders, who are determined to pass their spending bills in part to demonstrate to 2016 voters the party's ability to govern responsibly.
The MilCon-VA measure is historically the least controversial of all the 12 annual appropriations bills. It passed last year with the support of every House Democrat and Republican with the exception of Rep. Raúl M. Labrador, R-Idaho, a conservative with an idiosyncratic voting record.
But on Wednesday morning, threats to withhold votes on the bill took on new significance as Democrats were emboldened by President Barack Obama's veto threat, disapproval from the VA secretary and grumbles from influential veterans services organization. All the stakeholders said the funding levels were too low.
By Wednesday evening, Republicans saw a second red flag, prompting them to suddenly cancel scheduled votes that night on remaining MilCon-VA amendments and final passage.
Leadership aides played up the narrative of wanting to give members a chance to vote on the fiscal 2016 budget conference report (which also passed Thursday night, 226-197) before diving into appropriations bills. But several high-ranking Democratic staffers confirmed Republicans were worried a bipartisan coalition was prepared to adopt a trio of amendments barring the ability to spend money in the Overseas Contingency Operations account.
House Republican leaders stocked the account with $532 million in hopes of making the spending bill, which is limited due to sequester-level spending caps, more attractive to defense hawks who insist the Pentagon needs more cash to fight terror. But Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen
, D-Md., and Rep. Mick Mulvaney
, R-S.C., teamed up to fight the use of OCO.
Mulvaney and other fiscal hard-liners argued the GOP’s bill went too far in undermining spending caps, while Van Hollen and company contended the bill didn't go far enough. Both said the MilCon-VA bill's use of OCO money ran afoul of the rules and represented a "gimmick" and a "slush fund."
"I think it'll be really, really close," Mulvaney predicted Thursday afternoon of the vote breakdown on the amendments. "Clearly [Republicans] are concerned because I've received four emails today from subcommittee chairmen — mass emails, 'Dear Colleague' letters from approp[riations] subcommittee chairmen, saying that I'm the devil."
Van Hollen and Mulvaney's OCO-related amendments were ultimately rejected, likely a reason Mulvaney went on to vote against the underlying bill. He was joined by three other House Republicans: Reps. Jeff Denham of California, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming.
The 19 Democrats who voted with Republicans are "frontline" members facing vulnerable re-elections in 2016, and reliable moderates for whom bucking the party line is status quo.
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