The White House is positioning itself for another spending battle with the House, but Republicans in the chamber are viewing the administration’s strongest threat to date as yet another bluff.
The White House on Monday issued a broad veto threat against a specific, pending House appropriations bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, declaring the president would reject any individual spending bill without a larger budget framework. It was not so much an attack on the smaller bill as it was a targeted shot across the bow of Republicans who want to force the president to negotiate more spending cuts associated with a debt limit increase.
Though the president has repeatedly said he is done linking the debt limit to budget cuts, the House GOP is banking on the president doing just that.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said Monday he believes the White House announcement is ultimately an empty threat. He also indicated that the potential for finding common ground with Obama was elusive at best.
“They refuse to come to the table to address the problem on the entitlements, which is eating up the budget,” Rogers said of the Obama administration. “Unless they come to the table to address that, they really don’t have any sway with me.”
The government is projected to hit its debt limit early this fall — roughly the same time that this fiscal year’s appropriations bills are set to expire. The current spending levels were set by 2011´s Budget Control Act, the legislative result of the last major fight on the debt limit when Republicans exacted an austerity policy from Democrats in exchange for raising the borrowing levels. Democrats are particularly miffed that the Department of Homeland Security funding bill appears to violate the previously established firewall between defense and non-defense appropriations cuts.
“Prior to consideration of appropriations bills, the Congress should complete an appropriate framework for all the appropriations bills. More than a month has passed since the deadline for action and the Congress has yet to appoint conferees and agree on a budget resolution,” the statement of administration policy reads.
“Unless this bill passes the Congress in the context of an overall budget framework that supports our recovery and enables sufficient investments in education, infrastructure, innovation and national security for our economy to compete in the future, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto H.R. 2217 and any other legislation that implements the House Republican Budget framework.”
House Republican aides added Monday evening that Obama would not possibly risk shutting down the government to achieve a grand bargain on a variety of outstanding economic issues. The two House appropriations bills coming to the floor this week also have bipartisan support and would fund military operations and veterans benefits — the latter of which has been touted by both parties in recent weeks as a key legislative priority the government must address, particularly backlogged requests for services within the Veterans’ Affairs department.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were not surprised by the administration’s veto announcement but are still negotiating how to move forward. They want maximum leverage heading into the inevitable debt limit battle House Republicans seem determined to pick.
In January, the GOP suspended its demand for cuts in exchange for a debt limit extension because Republicans said they believed they could maximize their position for more cuts on a delayed timeline. To be sure, Obama had previously said he wouldn’t negotiate around the debt ceiling only to later back down and do so.
On the other hand, Senate Democrats also want to give new Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland room to negotiate a larger appropriations agreement with her GOP counterpart, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.
Of course, even if leaders say they are deferring to Mikulski, tying the debt limit to a larger spending blueprint would likely hamstring Senate appropriators. The last time Congress approved any appropriations bills outside of a continuing resolution was for fiscal 2012, when they approved a handful of “mini-buses” in addition to a larger continuing resolution that bundled the majority of spending provisions.
The Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill is typically noncontroversial enough that both chambers can approve it outside a larger spending framework. Threatening to veto individual and less controversial spending bills complicates Mikulski’s negotiations but sends a clear signal that Obama is looking to solve problems caused by the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Aides to Mikulski said she supports the president’s requested spending levels.
Rogers, too, believes that his current responsibility is to continue facilitating regular order.
“They would like to see all the bills marked at the higher level,” he said, “but ... I have to appropriate to the House-passed budget, which is what we’re doing.”
The House’s budget, as envisioned by Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., mandates discretionary spending at lower levels than Democrats would like.
Some Democrats indicated on Monday that despite any reservations they might have with those spending levels, they, too, would continue to support moving the appropriations measures through the legislative pipeline despite veto threats.
“There are three branches of this government, and of course we are the legislative branch and we are constitutionally charged with appropriating, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
As for how he might reconcile the “business as usual” philosophy with Obama’s positions, Bishop said simply, “We’ll work it out.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.