Democrats Rule With Iron Fist on First Appropriations Bill

Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:32pm

Updated: 6:39 p.m.

House Democratic leaders used the hardball tactic of limiting debate and amendments on the first regular spending bill of the year Wednesday, prompting outrage from Republicans.

Democrats said the move was needed to ensure that Republicans didn’t engage in filibuster-by-amendment and threaten passage of the 12 appropriations bills before the August recess. Republicans charged it was an extreme abuse of power that diminished the House’s long tradition of having open rules on spending bills and protects big Democratic spending plans from tough scrutiny.

“I wonder if there isn’t more freedom on the streets of Tehran right now than we are seeing here,— ripped Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), ranking member on the Rules Committee, to Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) at a raucous Rules hearing that ended near 2 a.m. Wednesday.

House Republicans were weighing how to respond, including whether to launch a series of protest votes as they did two years ago when Obey sought to delay earmarks for several bills until conference reports. GOP protests then forced Obey to back down, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) took a tough line.

If Republicans call for motions to adjourn, “then we’ll have motions to adjourn,— Hoyer said. “We’re going to get these appropriations bills done.—

Republicans refused Tuesday to agree to a timetable for the Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill, and insisted on debating a GOP amendment that Democrats had agreed to accept. Just 22 minutes into the bill, Democrats closed off debate and eventually went to the Rules Committee to drastically reduce the number of amendments allowed.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) declined at a news conference to elaborate on what tactics Republicans might use to retaliate. But on the House floor, Boehner and other Republicans said the issue was the enormous spending increases Democrats are proposing.

“The amount of debt and the amount of spending is going to imprison our kids and our grandkids and all we want to do is have an opportunity to debate just how much spending is enough,— Boehner said. “That’s what we are asking for.—

Obey meanwhile threatened during the Rules meeting that if he can’t get his bills done by Aug. 1 he will bring up an omnibus appropriations package after the August recess.

“If we don’t make certain concessions to the calendar, we are simply guaranteeing that we will have an omnibus situation,— he said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) retorted, “If you thought that was so important [to get all 12 appropriations bills done by August], why are you spending every Monday night voting on post offices?—

The outrage was swift.

“Repression, arrogance and tyranny live in the House of Representatives,— Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said. “As they rush, in typical fashion, to pass the largest set of spending bills in history, House Democrats have dishonored the body by shutting out those who question their willingness to bury future generations in debt.—

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had stints as Majority Leader and Majority Whip, noted that the GOP had never taken such a step. “To our credit, for a dozen years we took on all comers on appropriations bills,— he said.

But Democratic aides noted that Democrats offered far fewer amendments than Republicans are seeking now, and worked to have an orderly process.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Hoyer and Obey huddled Wednesday to map out a way forward with appropriations bills.

“We are only getting started, and this is already a bumpy ride,— Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday as she introduced the new rule on the floor.

A senior Democratic aide said the closed rule “could be a template for others.—

Obey said Democrats have been working with Republicans since December to come up with a process for moving appropriations bills. Up until Tuesday night’s debate began, Obey said he was told by his GOP counterparts that “things would go smoothly.—

Democrats made 33 amendments in order, including nine Democratic amendments, of the 127 that were originally slated for consideration.

“Instead of defending their spending, or allowing it to be curtailed or redirected, Democrats shut down the U.S. House of Representatives after just 22 minutes of amendment debate on the massive sending bill, preventing any Republican from debating its merits or limiting spending,— said a document distributed by Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office.

Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), whose amendment spurred the showdown, said that even if Republicans were trying to drag out the bill, it would mean 40 hours of debate on all 127 amendments. “I think most American citizens would agree that four 10-hour days for $60 billion would be justified,— he said. But Schock said that that wasn’t the plan, noting his was the first amendment introduced but the eighth of the total 127 amendments.

“There really never were going to be 127 amendments,— he said.

But Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant blamed Republicans.

“Democrats are committed to an open process, but so far Republicans appear focused on playing games to slow things down and play political gotcha, and have been unwilling to agree to reasonable time frames for consideration as we did when we were in the minority,— she said.

This is not the first time that an appropriations bill has caused drama on the House floor. In 2007, more than 100 Republicans walked off the floor in protest after Democrats held a vote open on a Republican amendment to the Agriculture appropriations bill until the vote tally tipped in their favor.

The incident resulted in the formation of an investigative committee to review the events of what Republicans called the “stolen vote.—

Republican protests also forced Democrats to back down in 2007 from an Obey plan to slip earmarks into conference reports instead of to include them in bills, where they could be challenged with amendments.

Republican aides later noted that House Democrats haven’t yet said how much their bill will cost and who will be covered either.

The Democratic outline released earlier this month, also four pages, does identify several ways to help pay for their plan, however, including enacting a tax on employers who don’t provide health insurance and eliminating subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans.

Democratic chairmen have also agreed to a mandate that individuals purchase insurance and said they are considering additional tax increases as well to pay for what they aim to be near-universal coverage.

They also said that individuals up to 400 percent of the poverty level would get help buying insurance. Republicans said they would provide tax credits to low- and moderate-income Americans but did not specify an income level Wednesday.

Democratic aides said they are on track to release a draft of their bill by the end of the week.

Jackie Kucinich, Tory Newmyer, Niels Lesniewski and Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.