RSC Rankles House Leaders

Posted March 9, 2005 at 6:45pm

The conservative Republican Study Committee pushed forward Wednesday with a high-stakes effort to enact budget reform, drawing the anger of much of the House GOP leadership in the process.

At press time last night, the Budget Committee was still in the process of marking up the $2.55 trillion fiscal 2006 budget resolution. Regardless of the final outcome within the committee, though, the RSC is currently planning to make its last stand when the spending blueprint comes to the House floor.

Led by RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), the group is seeking a rules change that would allow points of order against bills that exceed the spending limits established by the budget resolution. In the process, Pence has frustrated the GOP Whip team by telling RSC members to oppose the budget rule on the floor while also angering the RSC’s most natural ally in the leadership, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

“They totally pulled the rug out from under” DeLay, said a Republican lawmaker who is close to the leadership. “They horribly mishandled this thing.”

The tension between the leadership and the RSC was sparked Tuesday when Pence’s office sent an e-mail to the group’s members advising them to tell the leadership during that night’s whip check that they would vote against the budget rule if it did not include point-of-order protection.

Rule votes are seen as the ultimate test of loyalty by the GOP leadership, since the defeat of a rule essentially hands control of the floor to the minority. In the past, lawmakers have been kicked off the Whip team and denied key committee positions for voting against rules.

The situation was further exacerbated when the RSC snubbed DeLay from its weekly meeting.

According to Republican sources, the RSC invited DeLay to address the group at its regular Wednesday lunch meeting. Before that gathering could occur, however, the RSC informed DeLay that he was disinvited.

At Wednesday morning’s Conference meeting, DeLay made reference to the invitation’s withdrawal by saying that he had hoped to discuss the RSC’s concerns in private but would now have to do so in public, according to sources who were present.

Pence said in an interview Wednesday that the disinvitation of DeLay was the result of a miscommunication.

“I’ve apologized to the Majority Leader about that,” Pence said, explaining that his staff and other RSC members did not know that he was planning to have the conservative group hold a joint meeting with the centrist Tuesday Group.

Pence said it would have not been “appropriate” for DeLay to be at the meeting because he was not a member of either group.

Asked how many votes he had behind him for a budget floor fight, Pence said, “Enough.”

Republican Members and aides said they were not surprised by Pence’s aggressiveness, since they expected as much when the Indiana lawmaker was elevated to the RSC chairmanship. What remains unclear is whether Pence’s gambit would result in a historic procedural victory or simply a tactical error that would sour his relationship with leadership.

“The question is, is Pence interested in really reaching a resolution that actually achieves budget reform, or is this just a press stunt?” said a leadership aide.

That aide and others suggested that much of the leadership would be amenable to a broad package of budget reforms, but that the RSC had failed both last year and again at the start of this Congress to craft a package that would win the support of the majority of the Conference and the chairmen of three key committees — Budget, Appropriations and Rules.

DeLay plans to meet this morning with key chairmen and some RSC members in hopes of reaching some sort of consensus on how to proceed on the reform issue.

“We are working on and will have a bill this Congress on budget process reform,” DeLay said at his weekly session with reporters Wednesday.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the RSC’s point man on budget and appropriations issues, said he was still working on a broader reform package and that he hoped to have one ready “in a number of weeks.”

But while the other reforms might wait, Pence wants to push forward on the points-of-order issue now, arguing that conservatives need to give a signal that they are serious about change.

Initially, the RSC was asking that points of order be allowed and that the rules should stipulate that such points of order could only be waived by a three-fifths majority.

Asked about that concept Wednesday, DeLay said that he believed supermajority rules would be “unworkable” and would make the House’s floor procedures too much like those of the other body.

“I don’t want to create a Senate in the House,” DeLay said.

The Majority Leader spoke in even stronger terms during Wednesday’s Conference, saying that he would prefer not to have a budget at all rather than agree to the RSC’s demands on points of order, according to sources who were present.

By that point, however, the RSC had already softened its demands. Instead of requiring a supermajority to waive a budget point of order, the group decided Tuesday night that it would only ask for a simple majority requirement.

Conservatives argue that allowing points of order on spending bills would help to ensure fiscal discipline. But opponents of that plan, including the entire Republican leadership, contend that such a procedural change would throw the House floor into chaos and rob the majority of its ability to set the agenda.

“If they do really want budget points of order, that would hand [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] a lot more power,” contended a senior GOP leadership aide. “It would basically hand her the gavel.”