Democrats Pursue a No-Veto Strategy on Spending Bills

Posted June 30, 2015 at 9:06pm

President Barack Obama has issued just four vetoes so far in his presidency, and it appears he won’t be taking out the veto pen for a host of contentious fiscal 2016 spending bills, either — despite threats he’s already lodged on seven of them.

Democrats instead are stonewalling the appropriations measures by keeping them from coming up for debate in the Senate, even though they could instead allow Obama to take the heat by issuing vetoes. That would let Democrats escape tough-to-defend votes on defense spending, veterans’ benefits and more. But Democrats are having none of it, saying that the “regular order” process that would lead to a veto is a time-waster and they want negotiations on a budget deal launched now — a strategy that may or may not work.

“I have heard senators on the other side urge us to follow the process, which means spending weeks on the floor and more weeks in conference, only to send the president a bill he would veto,” says Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee.

In her view, it’s up to Congress, not the president, to change the law and lift the spending caps that Democrats say are too constraining.  “We need a new budget deal that ends sequester for defense and non-defense,” says Mikulski. “On our side, we are saying let’s not waste the rest of June, July and August, only to come to a crisis point in September. Instead, let’s come to the table now and not when we are threatened with shutdowns and showdowns.”


‘Draw the Line’

Allowing Obama to issue vetoes would seem to make sense. The president is a lame duck with an approval rating that hit 50 percent in a CNN poll for the first time in more than two years as he enjoys one of the best periods of his presidency, so he’s got some political capital to spend. At just four vetoes, his record doesn’t come close to that of other recent presidents, though of course there’s many months left in his tenure.

But, most importantly, a veto from Obama would blunt Republicans’ exploitation of defense votes.

Witness the Senate’s $576 billion Defense appropriations bill (HR 2685), which Democrats blocked from consideration in June. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear just how the GOP will characterize Democrats’ action on it: “Our Democratic friends have curiously just last week voted for the troops by approving the defense authorization bill,” the Kentucky Republican said, “and then turned around and voted against the troops on the bill that would actually fund their pay raises and the other things that these volunteers depend on.”

And yet, Democrats seem unconcerned with this line of attack. Particularly instructive is the case of Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a moderate in a purple state with a re-election in 2018.

“I’m upset with both Democrat and Republican strategy on this,” he said in a recent interview. He decried Republican use of uncapped war-fund spending as a workaround for budget caps, but he also had unkind words for his colleagues. “I’m also opposed to the Democrat strategy of filibustering unless we can spend as much. It’s not about spending. I’ve voted against everything, I will continue to vote against everything. You don’t like sequestering? Get a budget.”

Or take Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a senior member on Armed Services, who voted against the Defense authorization bill (S 1376) in committee, and at final passage, and to block the appropriations bill from floor consideration. “It’s not a tough vote for me at all. This is fake money. They’re taking major parts of DoD — operational readiness — one of the essential parts of our military and they’re sticking it over in an Afghanistan account that’s not accounted for in the budget caps. If they get away with this, what will they stick in next year?”

But why not just have Obama veto it? “Because now is the time to draw the line.”


Back-and-Forth

Republicans don’t think that’s a winning game plan in getting to a budget deal. “I think, frankly, the Democrats are making a mistake in the Senate by not allowing the appropriations bills to come to the floor,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, chairman of the Energy-Water subcommittee and a close Boehner ally, told CQ Roll Call.

It’s also possible a veto could serve as a useful watershed event that would bring the hammer down on Republican strategy.

At this point, Congress is stuck in a game of back-and-forth on spending. It’s conceivable that, following a veto, Democrats could negotiate a new budget deal sooner rather than later and come out looking good. On the downside, Democrats would cede control and power in allowing the bills to go through, and it’s power they don’t seem to want to relinquish. All they need to do is look to the Homeland Security showdown from earlier this year in which holding firm worked for them.

Stan Collender of Qorvis MSLGROUP, a long-time budget watcher and former congressional budget aide, said the Democrats’ strategy is a good one. 

“This needs to be a demonstration not that the president can hold firm, but the Democratic caucus in the Senate will hold firm,” he said in an interview. In his thinking, Democrats would lose leverage if they let the Defense appropriations bill and its war fund workaround to go through.

It’s possible Senate Republicans will bring the bill up again down the road, and as Collender notes: “Once the defense bill goes through, the Democrats’ ability to get increased domestic spending is much more difficult. They’ve got to stop this right up front.” 


Tough Votes

The standoff looks likely to continue at least through July. McConnell has said he would continue to bring spending bills to the floor “periodically” and see what Democrats will do. But that approach could grate on House Republicans. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior appropriator, suggested recently that putting members through tough votes in an essentially meaningless march could stop progress in the House.

Democrats say they’ll hold firm. Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have formally demanded immediate budget negotiations, while objecting to what Rep. Xavier Becerra of California dubbed “meat-ax approach budgeting.”

Looming over all of this, of course, is the specter of a shutdown of the federal government as the end of the budget year approaches Sept. 30. Both parties say they want to avoid one at all costs, that it would be a terrible thing, but that’s only partly true. What they really don’t want is to be blamed for a possible shutdown, and these next few months will go a long way toward determining who wins that war.

Lauren Gardner and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.