Sen. Charles Schumer today joined the chorus of calls for emergency funding for the next phase of restoring the aging Capitol Dome.
In doing so, the New York Democrat became the latest lawmaker to lobby for inserting a new provision in what is expected to be, for the most part, a "clean" six-month extension of current funding levels to float the federal government through March 2013.
With the Sept. 30 deadline looming to pass the stopgap spending measure, Schumer laid out his case in a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Support from Boehner and other key House Republicans is needed to secure the $61 million necessary to allow the Architect of the Capitol to begin the second round of repairs on the historic Dome.
"I write to urge an exception be made for the sake of an urgent bit of housekeeping," Schumer wrote. "The dome of the U.S. Capitol has fallen into severe disrepair. ... As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees matters of the Capitol's physical plant, I have serious concerns about the consequences of omitting this funding from the stopgap spending measure."
Schumer's colleagues in the Senate have by and large agreed with his assessment: A few weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee backed, 26-3, an amendment to the fiscal 2013 legislative branch spending bill to include $61 million, which would allow the AOC to proceed with ongoing repairs. The panel approved on the overall bill, 22-8.
The full House, however, did not include the money in the legislative branch bill it passed earlier this year.
"It's a matter of priority," said Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, at the time. "We're trying to focus on health and safety issues. ... There's a long list and we can't do everything."
But such repairs are necessary, Schumer and others argue, to protect the Dome from further deterioration after 150 years of weather damage. It currently suffers from at least 1,300 cracks, threatening its structural and aesthetic integrity.
"There is a time and a place to debate federal spending and the proper role of government, but most Americans believe that when your house has a leaky roof, you pay to fix that roof," Schumer said. "Postponing these repairs ... will only increase the project's price tag down the road.
"It would be a national embarrassment if partisan gridlock allows this iconic work of architecture to fall into a state of permanent decay," he continued.
Disagreement over funding phase two of the Dome restoration project is less about partisan squabbling than a general reluctance among fiscal conservatives in both parties to fund expensive projects during uncertain times.
Indeed, the Senate Appropriations Committee's decision to endorse funding Dome repairs came not at the behest of subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who did not believe there was funding available. Rather, it was secured in the legislation via an amendment offered by full committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). The subpanel's ranking member, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), voted in favor of the amendment, saying that while he had hoped to find the savings within the bill itself, he believed funding the project was so necessary that he was willing to increase the bill's overall topline number by the $61 million that the AOC requested.
And while Crenshaw would not relent to pressure from his Democratic counterparts as the House prepared to pass its legislative branch spending bill, he told Roll Call before the August recess that he had always hoped that Congress would find the money for the project sooner rather than later, "whether it was for fiscal 2013 or before we reached fiscal 2014."
Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith would not say how the Speaker planned to proceed in light of Schumer's letter. Smith did say that fixing the Dome does not have to be a partisan issue.
"The Speaker is confident we can work together to fix the Capitol Dome without more political posturing from Senator Schumer," he said.
Correction: Aug. 27, 5:57 p.m.
An earlier version of this article misstated the vote total on the fiscal 2013 legislative branch spending bill. The bill was approved by the committee 22-8, while the amendment on Capitol Dome repairs was approved by a 26-3 vote. The earlier version also incorrectly stated that Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) offered the amendment to include $61 million for funding for the Capitol Dome repairs. It was offered by full committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).