Congressional Spending Standoff as Partisan Politics Rule

Congressional Spending Standoff as Partisan Politics Rule

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Line in the sand widens for Appropriations Committees

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The House and Senate Appropriations Committees used to be the height of comity on Capitol Hill. Doling out the dollars in annual spending bills, including earmarks, required compromise — not carping over political disagreements. But recent events show how that's all falling apart.

On Tuesday, the House sent the latest war spending bill to the White House for President Obama's signature—almost six months after Obama requested it. Citing deficit concerns, Republicans have repeatedly turned back Democrats' efforts to add domestic spending to avert teacher layoffs, fund college scholarships and provide border security. That has deeply frustrated Democrats, who say that support for war at the expense of economic support shows backward priorities. 

"What’s happened with this bill is a good indication of the tensions and the false choices that we face," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., the original sponsor of the bill, who joined 101 other Democrats in voting against it on Tuesday.

Add to that the remarkable scene at a recent Senate Appropriations meeting and it appears that this year's bitter politics are unraveling a once collegial corner of Congress. This development does not bode well for Democrats, who have already had a difficult year shoving, cajoling and bartering legislation into law.

The Senate panel is headed by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who took over from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., a year and a half ago. Like Byrd, who died last month, Inouye is old school: He's loyal to the Senate and to the friends and promises he's made there. Inouye's friendship with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who was prosecuted for ethics violations in 2008, went so deep that Inouye stood as a character witness during the trial, even though Stevens was from the opposing party.

The committee met on July 15 to approve its overall spending ceiling for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Inouye set forth a $1.1 trillion budget plan for Congress to divvy up, a small but painful $8 billion below what President Obama had requested, noting “severe economic difficulties facing the nation.”

Republicans countered that because of soaring deficits, spending should stay at this year's level, about $20 billion below Obama's request. Inouye offered to split the difference: $14 billion below the president's plan, with the $6 billion difference coming entirely out of the discretionary defense budget, which Inouye oversees. The GOP seemed tempted but ultimately rejected the offer, saying that because Democrats didn't produce a budget for full debate earlier this year, they must make a stand on overall spending in the Appropriations Committee.

Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the panel, acknowledged that his move was unusual, but that the budget politics was more important. "We recognize that minority views and priorities are given greater consideration here than in many other committees,” Cochran said. “But this year we are $1 trillion further in debt, and no attempt has been made to construct a budget roadmap that will get our nation back on solid fiscal ground."

This is a new development. Last year, for example, the committee approved all of its bills by near unanimous votes, with the full Senate passing the bills overwhelmingly. But if Republicans continue the opposition, spending bills will become yet another wedge in Congress. As with health care and financial reform, Democrats sought compromise, only to see Republicans vote against the final product. Republicans and some Democrats have recently dug in on the deficit across a range of issues, most notably by holding up another extension of unemployment benefits on the Senate floor. House Republicans have declared a moratorium on earmarks, and this year's elections may bring a new crop of anti-earmark politicians, signaling a more permanent change in the way the spending panels do business.

“If I had to make a prediction, I would say earmarking would be gone in 10 years because the public is beginning to figure it out,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Politico.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who is expected to take over as the top Democrat David Obey retires at the end of the year, said that working across the aisle will be easier after the election.

"I believe in bipartisanship and I believe in working with the minority. I'm going to do everything I can to try to improve the relationship," Dicks said. "I was a born optimist," he added, "Sometimes these things don’t happen."

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