Get on the Omnibus

Posted January 16, 2004 at 5:58pm

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Back in December, faced with the inability to unanimously pass the fiscal year 2004 omnibus spending bill and unwilling to break his promise to not call Senators back for a roll call vote, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) made plans to tackle the controversial measure immediately upon Congress’ return from the winter holidays — which turns out to be today.

Some might applaud Frist’s resolve to plunge the Senate back into the nation’s important work on the day they come back — after all, the House’s schedule this week is typical for Congress’ return from a recess: a meaningless “quorum call” vote today and four noncontroversial votes on suspension calendar bills Wednesday.

But it appears that when Frist looked at his calendar back in December he didn’t quite connect all the dots, and as fate would have it, he scheduled a 60-vote-threshold cloture vote for the same day that President Bush will deliver his election year State of the Union address.

“In hindsight, I don’t know that we should have filed cloture and have it all on that day,” acknowledged one senior Senate GOP aide. “But at that time, it didn’t look like there was much organized opposition.”

Unfortunately for Frist, a little organized opposition is all it takes for Senate Democrats to hand the president a major legislative defeat on the day of his big speech.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) acknowledged on Dec. 9, the last day the Senate met before its recess, that he would be calling colleagues over the holidays to potentially build support for a filibuster.

Prolonging debate on the omnibus also gives Democrats a golden opportunity during a day of heightened media scrutiny to roundly criticize what they see as deficiencies in the $373 billion omnibus — for example, the GOP leadership’s decision to eliminate policy riders that would have stalled Bush administration plans to roll back rules on overtime pay, to go forward with expanded media ownership rules, and to ban the implementation of country-of-origin meat labeling rules.

To achieve his goal, Daschle is appealing to his colleagues’ partisan side, arguing that Democrats should vote no on cloture to deny the president a domestic victory hours before his State of the Union, according to one senior Senate Democratic aide.

But Senate GOP leaders are hoping that Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) letter reminding his colleagues that they all have a lot to lose if the omnibus doesn’t become law — specifically, millions of dollars in earmarked funds for their states — will help them win the day.

In fact, Stevens’ argument appears to have taken some root in the Democratic Caucus, according to both Democratic and Republican aides.

The Senate Republican leadership is reaching out to Democrats they believe might be wavering, not just because they need Democrats to reach 60 votes but also because they need them to supplement the two or three Republicans they might lose.

However, 11 days before the expiration of the current continuing resolution keeping the government afloat, filibuster proponents are no doubt aware that there is plenty of time for Democrats to express their outrage on the omnibus today, while quietly caving a few days from now.

Daschle warned at a Friday press event that there was “strong support” among Democrats for defeating today’s cloture vote, but he was quick to add that Democrats were not trying to be the obstructionists Republicans often label them.

“We’re giving the Republicans an opportunity to fix this legislation. We don’t want to kill the bill,” he said.

At its heart, it’s the kind of strategy that will allow the Democrats to have their cake and eat it too. And it’s an approach Senate Democrats have used before. Let’s call it the “We-just-don’t-want-this-thing-shoved-down-our-throats-without-talking-about-it-on-the-Senate-floor-for-a-couple-of-days-to-give-us-political-cover-for-opposing-it-and-then-turning-around-and-supporting-it” strategy.

“It just shows their depths of immaturity and mere babyishness,” complained a second senior GOP Senate aide. “And it’s to no effect, if they’re just going to go ahead and approve it down the line.”

Still, Republicans apparently are going to give them the option of doing just that.

GOP leaders in both chambers have loudly proclaimed that any defeat of the omnibus will force them to pass a continuing resolution that keeps most of the federal government’s funding at last year’s levels for the rest of this fiscal year — a prospect that would deny all Members their coveted “pork” projects as well as prevent any increases in traditional Democratic priorities, such as education and health care funding.

But when pressed, Senate Republican aides admit they’ll likely give Senate Democrats another chance to change their mind on the omnibus, probably by scheduling another cloture vote for later this week or early next week.

Meanwhile, House and Senate GOP leaders are vowing to resist entreaties from both parties to actually send the omnibus back to the drawing table, whether that means sending it back to conference committee or devising a resolution that would direct the House clerk to change the bill before sending it to the president.

While Democrats have a legion of issues they would like changed, the real pickle for Republicans is their own Members, who have variously decried the omnibus’ price tag as well as the GOP leadership’s decision to abandon several policy riders under pressure from the White House.

At the top of many Republicans’ lists is language in the omnibus banning implementation of the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) program for meat.

In particular, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has called on his leadership to use the resolution route to change the COOL language, according to Enzi aide Katherine McGuire.

McGuire noted that Enzi is even considering voting against cloture on the omnibus, further complicating his party’s efforts to stifle a filibuster, if the issue isn’t resolved.

Senate Republican leadership aides say the issue will likely have to be resolved through the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee or on another measure down the road. GOP aides argue that bringing up a resolution to change a few things on the omnibus will only give Democrats a chance to try to amend it further, which potentially could further delay enactment of the spending bill.

But other issues are also bubbling up in the GOP ranks.

For example, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) may vote “no” on both cloture and final passage of the omnibus because of a Stevens-inserted rider that was not vetted by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on oceans, fisheries and Coast Guard, which Snowe chairs.

The rider would require some fishermen in the North Pacific to sell their bounty to specific processors, which critics say would amount to a monopoly for Alaska fish processors.