The Other Political ‘Odd Couple’ Could Stir Things Up
Policy + Politics

The Other Political ‘Odd Couple’ Could Stir Things Up

REUTERS/flickr/Gage Skidmore/The Fiscal Times

When the political “odd couple” of House Budget Committee Chairman  Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chief Patty Murray (D-WA) defied the odds and hammered out a two-year budget deal last week, they did what few thought possible—they compromised.  They canceled the sequester, boosted domestic and defense spending,  and averted the possibility of another government shutdown in mid-January.

Ryan, the tall, lean 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, and Murray, the short-bespectacled Democratic workhorse, found a way to bridge the vast differences between the two parties over spending policy.

Now, another political odd couple is waiting in the wings.

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Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) will immediately begin carving up the $1 trillion a year in discretionary spending on defense and domestic programs, assuming the Senate follows the lead of the House this week and approves the Ryan-Murray budget blue print.

The appropriators will have roughly 30 days to draft an omnibus package of spending measures to keep the government operating and get it through Congress before a Jan. 15 deadline.

Mikulski, 77, the longest-serving woman in Congress and the first to head the powerful appropriations panel, is a scrappy, tough-minded feminist and one-time community organizer from East Baltimore.

She is a vigorous champion of social welfare and economic development programs for the middle class. She carefully protects the interests of the many government workers, defense and space contractors and medical research facilities living and operating in Maryland. With   unflinching backing from Murray and other Senate Democratic leaders, Mikulski is fearless in wielding power in committee and on the Senate Floor.

The 75-year-old Rogers, by contrast, is a courtly, white-thatched, cigar-smoking Kentucky lawyer who once was dubbed the “Prince of Pork.” Rogers earned that sobriquet by steering many hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of roads, bridges and other government projects to his 5th congressional district in mountainous eastern Kentucky, a mixture of heavily Republican and Democratic pockets where jobs are hard to come.  

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Rogers’s zest for pork-barrel spending once put him at odds with the Tea Party gospel of cutting spending and special interest “earmarks.”  Eager to assume the chairmanship of the appropriations committee after the Republicans won control of the House in November 2010, the mild-mannered, grandfatherly Rogers found himself in an unaccustomed position of hard-nosed chief budget cutter before the new House leadership finally granted him the chairmanship.

After years of fiscal stalemate and partisan acrimony that culminated in a 16-day government shutdown in October, the Ryan-Murray budget deal will afford the appropriators the chance to follow “regular order” in drafting major spending bills, instead of relying on a series of stop-gap “continuing resolutions” to barely keep the government afloat.

Although they differ greatly over a broad range of defense and domestic spending priorities, Mikulski and Rogers are united in their desire to restore a semblance of sanity and order to the once-proud appropriations process.

“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be stringent, but we’re going to get the job done,” Mikulski said Monday afternoon in a floor speech about the budget agreement. “The American people are tired of shutdown, slowdown, slam-down politics. This agreement ends the lurching from crisis to crisis and shows we can compromise and that we can govern.”

Related: With Budget Deal Done, Ryan and Murray Eye Tax Reform  

“It allows us to get the train back on the track and stop these herky-jerky shutdown showdowns every few months or weeks,” Rogers told C-SPAN last week.

While usually circumspect in venting his differences with his own party over spending policy, Rogers issued a surprisingly frank statement last July. He warned the GOP that deep across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2014 as part of the ongoing budget sequestration were unsustainable. 

"Sequestration -- and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts -- must be brought to an end,” Rogers said.

James Dyer, a lobbyist and former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, described Mikulski and Rogers as consummate lawmakers and strategists.

“If I’m in a legislative fight I’d like to have both of them on my side,” Dyer said in an interview Monday. “I worked with Rogers for a long time. He’s a very skilled negotiator. God bless him, if you give him Broadway, he’s got his hands on Park Place.”

As for Mikulski, Dyer said, she is a “can-do woman” with a strong personality and nearly four decades of legislative experience in the House and Senate that gives her important standing with other members. “She has brought new energy to the committee, and she is not shy about the need to return to regular processes here,” he said. Mikulski last December was tapped to succeed the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) as chairman of the appropriations committee.

The budget deal lets the appropriators make the critical decisions about how the one trillion dollars of annual discretionary funds will be divvied up or allocated among the various government spending accounts in 2014 and 2015.

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Ryan and Murray essentially split the difference between the Senate budget level of $1.058 trillion and the House budget level of $967 billion. The agreement would provide $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. In fiscal year 2014, defense discretionary spending would be set at $520.5 billion, and non-defense discretionary spending would be set at $491.8 billion.

Agreeing on how to slice up the overall spending pie – essentially determining winners and losers – often can be even more challenging than writing the budget. Democrats and Republicans on the committees must strike literally thousands of compromises on funding levels for government agencies and programs.

“It will not surprise you to assume that the Republicans will want to protect as best they can the national security accounts and the Democrats will want to protect the social accounts,” Dyer said. “There is not a lot of money to play with so the money will be spread out thinly.”

Moreover, committee members may press for inclusion of policy amendments or “riders” to influence how the money is spent.

Republicans are almost certain to try again to cut spending for the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act. There also are likely to be battles over Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing coal-fired power plants and implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

“Both Rogers and Mikulski have worked well together all year,” Dyer noted. “I think they come into this thing with a clear understanding of the pressures that are on each other, and perhaps an even clearer understanding of the limits to which each must go to get the other.”

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