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."
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