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Approps Fights Leave Bruised Feelings in the House

By Ben Pershing
The House last week voted to spend well over $100 billion to fund two wars, dozens of federal agencies and itself, while at the same time conducting substantive debates on the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the advisability of extending a huge line of credit to the International Monetary Fund. But along the way, Democrats and Republicans also engaged in a protracted fight over process, one that could affect the chamber's ability to move President Obama's big-ticket agenda items later this year.

On Tuesday night, the House passed a $106 billion supplemental spending bill to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respond to the flu pandemic and bolster the IMF, among other purposes. The debate was heated at times, as the two parties took turns accusing each other of exploiting U.S. troops for political ends.

But that was nothing compared to Thursday's debate over the $64 billion measure to fund, among other agencies, the departments of Commerce and Justice, which devolved into a marathon of floor votes the likes of which the chamber has rarely seen.

In the end, the House held 53 roll call votes Thursday -- a modern record, according to multiple sources -- as Republicans sought to protest their inability to offer unlimited amendments to the measure, and Democrats accused the minority of obstructionism.

On Friday, the House passed the legislative branch spending bill, with Republicans again complaining that nearly all of their amendments were blocked from consideration. When the dust had settled, even veterans of past partisan battles said the level of discourse in the chamber had reached a new low.

"It's much worse," said Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee who has led many of his party's procedural fights over the years.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), a veteran appropriator, said that fights over procedure are commonplace, but "what's changed on the floor is the language, the rhetoric, the anger," all of which "makes it not fun at times" to participate in debates.

Dreier and his fellow Republicans complain that Democrats broke with tradition by moving the Commerce-Justice-science bill under a "closed rule," meaning that the number of amendments allowed was limited. Spending bills typically move under open rules, giving the minority ample opportunity to weigh in.

"Never before have we seen the sacrosanct appropriations process shut down," Dreier said. "Never before has unilateral action like this been taken."

Some might say Republicans are whining, but, Dreier said, "It's not whining -- it's just looking at history."

But Democrats say Republicans' sole goal was to slow or halt the legislative process, pointing out that the minority offered up more than 100 amendments. On past spending bills, Republicans and Democrats were usually able to agree on a much smaller number of amendments that would be considered.

Serrano said that the process had worked well in the past because the two sides agreed to make amendments "germane and not discuss other issues." Now, Serrano and other Democrats allege, Republicans have increased their efforts to use appropriations debates to score political points on unrelated topics. That led Democrats to impose a new requirement that amendments be pre-printed in the Congressional Record before they are considered, giving everyone time to read them

"We went out of the way to set the stage for a balanced process but once the other side made it clear they only wanted to gum up the works than all bets are off. We're still hoping to have a cooperative tone next week but stay tuned," Vincent Morris, spokesman for House Rules Committee Democrats, said Friday.

For all the heat they generate on Capitol Hill, these fights over process rarely attract much interest outside the Beltway. So why should the voting public -- or the media -- pay attention? Because last week's squabbles could be a preview of the coming debates on high-profile issues like health care reform and climate change legislation.

Dreier acknowledged that bruised feelings over appropriations bills could spill over when the chamber takes up other issues. "It does sour the whole process," he said.

The GOP's actions this week showed how the minority might deal with, say, a health care bill it dislikes: Offer a huge number of amendments under an open rule, or try to grind the process to a halt if the rule is closed.

"If they really don't want health care, they'll use this tactic," Serrano said.

Republicans counter that they'll have little choice if the majority doesn't take their views into account early on in the process of crafting major bills.

"We saw it with the stimulus," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.). "The Democratic leadership in the House ran us over."

"It seems to me that whether there's bipartisanship is largely up to the majority," McCotter added. So are relations in the House poisoned now for the remainder of this Congress?

"It's six months in," he said. "We'll see."

By Ben Pershing  |  June 22, 2009; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Agenda , House , Purse Strings  
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Comments

"It's not whining -- it's just looking at history," whined Dreier.

Posted by: Observer44 | June 23, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the GOP has spent the last 5 months attempting to discredit any and every statement/utterance/idea that comes from either Pres. Obama or anyone who is a democrat from either the house, senate or state legislature. If a significant number of Neocon polititians and pundits continually make the same statement over and over, eventually the general population (who repeatedly demonstrates short term memory)will begin to believe it. Apparently this is the GOP's attempt to regain power. The democrates have decided that it is better to shut them out than to give in which leaves the American people and their desires for change at a stand still. Moderates who wish for consensus will destroy Health reform and most likely energy reform as well due to this "game" both sides are playing because thier wish is to return to the "Moderate Majority" (which is very unlikely in this current political atmosphere.) Both left and right extremists (deciding that keeping or regaining total and ultimate power is more important) will deprive our country of the truly needed reforms to get this country back on track. It's the American People who will suffer. President Obama deserves credit for maintaining a cool head and taking a much needed realistic and pragmatic approach to our nations economic and foriegn policies, but I fear that when the details emerge, they will be so moderate that by the time they are sliced and diced in our current legislature, they will look nothing like the reforms that are needed.

Posted by: dncevans | June 23, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

The majority of Republicans are more concerned with eating their sour grapes and belching than offering any viable alternatives as amendments. They only want to sabotage and delay any progress in legislation to repeal the many mistakes inflicted by them on the American people. A very small handful of Republican Senators actually understand the significance of this moment in our nation's and the world's history. My hat is off to those conservatives who truly understand that elections have consequences and that they are obliged to work with, rather than against, the majority to formulate good legislation. That is the only way that the American people will benefit. Otherwise, everyone loses and the Republicans may be permanently banished from any real voice in American political life.

Why must they self-destruct? Our founders understood that government was about finding consensus? Why is it that only the "gray heads" in the Senate understand this principle? I hope that they can regain control of their party and get their juniors to understand that they can participate and moderate rather than oppose and disintegrate. America needs all of them working together, compromising, legislating real, effective change. Accept that some tenets of their conservative policies may have proven to not be in the common interest of America. Is that so bad? For an individual that is called learning from your mistakes, maturing.

Any view that lives at the fringes of society, whether conservative or liberal, will necessarily not survive the test of moderation. Most people gravitate to middle for a reason--that is the way toward social survival and progress.

Posted by: old_sarge | June 24, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

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