Senators Cool to Approps Shuffle

Posted February 1, 2005 at 6:53pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) plan to ask House GOP leaders to revisit and more fully negotiate a House-proposed reorganization of appropriations subcommittees that would cause several current subcommittee chairmen to lose their seats.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said any reorganization “has to be negotiated between the House and the Senate, and the alignment that the House has suggested poses quite a number of problems.” Specter chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education subcommittee.

“We’re in the early stages of this controversy,” Specter said.

During a meeting of Senate GOP appropriators Tuesday afternoon, Frist was asked to sit down with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and find out if the House is willing to negotiate on their plan to reduce the number of appropriations subcommittees from 13 to 10, according to Jenny Manley, spokeswoman for Cochran. Meanwhile, Cochran is scheduled to meet this morning with House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) to discuss the Senate’s position.

House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said Lewis “is happy to negotiate with the Senate, but he will not negotiate in the press.”

The House proposal would eliminate separate panels on the District of Columbia, legislative branch, and Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies. Funding for the internal operations of Congress would be handled at the full committee level, while programs for the District of Columbia, veterans, housing and others would be split among the remaining panels.

Meanwhile, the House Republican Steering Committee is still expected to move forward today on the proposal — first floated by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — by choosing 10 subcommittee chairmen. Any changes to the House Appropriations Committee, however, would have to be formalized in an organizational meeting of the whole committee, which has not yet been scheduled.

DeLay said Tuesday that the current committee construct “creates a lot of confusion and a lot of competition that is unnecessary.” Cochran has expressed an open mind about DeLay’s proposed changes, but made clear he would not move forward on them without the consent of his Senate Republican colleagues.

But many lower ranking Senate appropriators from both parties complained that the House was trying to force unwarranted changes on them.

“I haven’t been told why it’s necessary,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the VA-HUD subcommittee. “I’m very much concerned.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the ranking member of the Defense subcommittee, echoed Bond’s complaints, saying, “I don’t think it’s well thought out.”

The anger toward House leaders for trying to push the changes on the Senate was exacerbated by many Senators’ beliefs that non-parallel subcommittee jurisdictions could hamper efforts to conference spending bills later in the year.

“We were not brought into this discussion early. There was no effort to negotiate,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a committee member. Asked if the Senate should respond to the House with a counterproposal, Craig said, “Hell no.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she did not think her Republican colleagues “should have DeLay reorganizing the entire Senate.”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is chairman of the Defense subcommittee, said the Senate’s acquiescence two years ago to a House plan to create a separate Homeland Security subcommittee within the Appropriations panel does not apply as precedent to the current situation.

In 2003, said Stevens, the new threats to the United States made a Homeland Security panel necessary. “I don’t see any national wave hitting the process that we’re talking about now,” he said.

Stevens also argued that the reorganization, which would redistribute some of his panel’s jurisdiction as well, would actually harm the ability of the Senate to pass defense-related spending in a time of war and would split jurisdiction for “essential” Defense Department accounts, including those for military intelligence.

Senate Democrats appeared almost universally opposed to the House reorganization plan, but there may be little they can do to stop it from happening.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said that while he would rather keep the subcommittee structure intact, “I realize that the pressures are such that it might be unlikely.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.