Appropriations Encounters Turbulent Start

Posted June 6, 2008 at 6:28pm

With a budget passed, House appropriators will start marking up bills this week, but the normally bipartisan and chummy committee has seen strained relations and even diminished relevance in a year when few, if any, regular spending bills are expected to reach the president’s desk.

Republicans are sore from Democrats’ running roughshod over them on the still-unfinished $250 billion Iraq War supplemental, which bypassed the committee, and the relationship between Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has been unusually tense.

“It’s as bad as I’ve seen it since I’ve been on the committee,” a veteran Republican appropriator said.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Lewis and Republican appropriators, acknowledged the tension but said it would not interfere with their work.

“While Obey and Lewis have their disagreements on policy, top-line spending and process, they are still more than willing to work together to get the work of the Appropriations Committee done. The door between them is open and right now, Obey and Lewis have the same goal: Get our work done, and do it efficiently and responsibly.”

But some Republicans now fear that Democrats won’t bring regular spending bills to the House floor and will simply punt until the next president takes over in January.

Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, said Democrats appear to be abdicating their responsibility this year to move bills.

“There seems to be an assumption by Chairman Obey and the leadership that we’re not going to get appropriations bills this year. It’s not personal. It’s not partisan. It’s about the committee not doing its work. … It doesn’t matter what the president or the Senate will do. We have jobs. We need to go ahead and do them.”

Although Obey has set a schedule for moving bills through committee, Walsh said the expectation is Democrats won’t bring them to the floor.

“Last year, there was a very different attitude,” he said. “It was ‘let’s work together.’ They were frustrated last year by the president’s vetoes, and rightly so, but we have to give the Congress their opportunity to be heard.’”

Walsh said he cannot recall this level of pessimism at the start of the appropriations process. “The assumption was always that we would get a bill in the end,” he said.

Obey warned that GOP attempts to filibuster bills on the House floor via amendment could scuttle them.

“Our preference and intention is to try and finish the bills,” Obey said in a statement responding to Walsh’s comments. “But if we are filibustered to death or if the administration refuses to make any significant compromises as it did last year, that will obviously prevent bills from being finished.”

Walsh, meanwhile, described relations between Obey and Lewis as “testy.”

“I don’t think they are communicating well,” said Walsh, who backed Democratic spending bills last year. “I think it’s primarily because Obey keeps his cards close to the vest.”

Walsh said the onus is on Democrats to try to smooth over relations because they are in the majority. “They hold all the cards.”

But Democrats said Republicans better play nice or they will be shut out of the process.

“That’s why the onus is not on us,” a House Democratic aide said. “We have all the power; they are the ones who have to be nice. If you don’t play nice, you become completely irrelevant.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that he expected some spending bills to reach the House floor this summer but would not commit to which ones or how many. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ducked a question on the likelihood of few bills reaching the president.

But Democrats said it will be up to Republicans to show they will cooperate.

“Republicans can either act as a roadblock to progress again this summer or show that they have finally gotten the message from voters and work with Democrats to get things done,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards said.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, predicted last week that even the defense spending bill — usually the easiest to pass — would wait for the next president. Murtha predicted that a “very detailed” continuing resolution would keep the government running from the October start of the fiscal year until after the January inauguration, despite the turmoil that would cause government managers.

“I don’t see how we get it done,” he said.

The partisan sniping over appropriations started early last year — when Lewis complained that Obey had frozen him out on a yearlong catch-all bill taking care of spending that the previous Republican majority had failed to finish. Lewis faced internal pressures of his own from leadership, who made attacking earmarks — the lifeblood of the committee — a central theme to their efforts to rebuild the tarnished GOP brand. Later, Republicans were irked at Obey for an aborted plan to withhold earmarks on spending bills until after bills passed on the House floor.

The partisan rancor bubbled over this year when Republican appropriators led by Lewis voted “present” on the war spending portion of the Iraq supplemental to protest Democrats’ refusal to go through committee or allow Republicans the ability to offer any amendments.

But Democrats have charged that Republicans have politicized the committee, with GOP appropriators signing on to an earmark moratorium that the Democrats regarded as a phony partisan ploy. GOP appropriators voted on the House floor for an ethics probe against Obey, which Democrats saw as bogus, after he sent a letter to Republicans asking them to let him know whether they still wanted their earmarks. And Obey charged Republicans last year with abusing open rules and bringing far more amendments to spending bills on the floor than Democrats did in previous years.

Obey said last year that he bent over backward to accommodate Republican concerns — avoiding such controversial topics as abortion rules and continuing funding for GOP priorities such as abstinence education — to build large bipartisan majorities that he hoped would either persuade President Bush to come to the negotiating table or result in veto overrides.

But neither happened. Bush played hardball until the end, and House Republicans, including some appropriators, sustained his vetoes, albeit just barely.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, said that appropriators in both parties are frustrated that bills are unlikely to move this year and that partisan comity had reached “a real low point.”

Wamp said Republican efforts to overhaul the earmarking process while calling for a temporary “moratorium” had angered Democratic appropriators.

“We’re trying to reform the process, and they’re trying to protect it,” he said. “That definitely added to the angst.”

Wamp and fellow GOP appropriators Reps. Jack Kingston (Ga.) and Frank Wolf (Va.) had co-sponsored the moratorium legislation.

The bill would not necessarily have stopped a single earmark because it would have lasted only until a bipartisan committee came up with earmark disclosure rules, which Kingston had noted could have taken as little as a few weeks.

Wamp, meanwhile, said there had not been enough cooperation even on issues such as military construction in the war supplemental. “If we’re not cooperating on military issues in a time of war, we’re not cooperating on anything,” he said.

Kingston said the new political tinge to the committee is a “reflection in the change in competitive politics,” with Republicans retaliating to aggressive Democratic tactics.

He acknowledged that Republicans have turned floor debates over spending bills into political theater but said Democratic leadership is at fault.

“I think Republicans are because Democrats have shut down the rules process so much it’s the only game left in town,” Kingston said.

Kingston also argued that Democratic leaders are monkeying with appropriations bills.

“If the process was allowed to work between the chairmen and the ranking members, they could cobble together bills that not only could get a 51 percent majority but could get a 67 percent veto-proof majority. The Gestapo arm of the Democratic leadership won’t allow anything like that to take place,” Kingston said. “They have to hijack the bill.”

A Democratic aide ripped Kingston’s “Gestapo” comment. “Such a charge is proof enough he’s little more than a partisan hack,” the aide said.

Democrats, however, blame GOP leadership and Bush for the committee tension.

“I think that stems from really the leadership on the other side of the aisle,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies. “I think it comes from on high and from the administration.”

DeLauro said she would “love to see our bills move” but said it’s tough with a president who will “veto stuff just to veto stuff.”

There are also political risks for Democrats in moving bills this year on the floor, with little chance of the bills becoming law and with Republicans aiming to turn the bills into piñata parties.

“If they thought I offered a lot before, wait ‘til this year,” said anti-earmark crusader Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).