POLITICS

The fights this week: As deadlines near in Congress, focus is on spending, war powers

Chad Pergram

Congressional Republicans long advocated Congress return to the “regular order” to individually approve the 12 spending bills that fund the government.

They’ll have to keep advocating.

This week, the GOP-led House is poised to marry four of the spending bills into an amalgamated spending package funding the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs*, energy & water programs and the legislative branch.

Such an approach is called a “mini-bus” spending bill, say, compared to an “omnibus.” The House will engage in this lengthy exercise with final votes on Wednesday bleeding after midnight and pushing the witching hour on Thursday.

The House may also soon toil on a controversial spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. The flashpoint there is $1.6 billion to construct a physical border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. That issue alone could force a government shutdown in October.

There is no firm plan yet for the Senate to tackle any of these spending bills. The House is slated to abandon Washington until September starting at the end of the week, for its annual August recess.

All of this sets up the very real likelihood that congressional Republicans will have to craft a major stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown -- and probably write a dreaded omnibus bill later in the year just to keep the lights on in Washington.

In other words, there will be some intense parliamentary calisthenics and floor fights over spending this week. The House is likely to approve the mini-bus spending bill with even some Democratic votes. But these exercises could be for naught considering the realities of time, fortitude and politics.

Lawmakers from all sides will howl at Congress reverting again to temporary spending measures, CR’s (short for “Continuing Resolutions) and other fiscal devices.

But none will howl louder than House conservatives who complained about similar approaches taken for years by former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Will they give House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a pass or raise hackles with him, too?

Never mind that a key component of the House GOP’s “Pledge to America” in 2010 promised voters that members would consider issues one at a time and not meld them together.

That said, consider some of the most nettlesome topics likely to surface in the coming days

Perhaps the most controversial issue centers on something that isn’t in the bill.

California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, was the only congressional lawmaker to vote against going to war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, following 9/11.

Congress and now three presidential administrations have used the authorization to fight in Afghanistan and wage war against terrorism in various corners of the world.

Congress approved a second authorization in the fall of 2002 to justify the war in Iraq. The U.S. now uses both authorizations to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and a host of other locales.

A bipartisan coalition of  lawmakers have long advocated redrafting an “Authorization for Use of Military Force,”  or AUMF, to fight contemporary conflicts against the Islamic State terror group, a retrenched mission in Iraq and continued operations in Afghanistan (the longest war in U.S. history).

The House Appropriations Committee wrote the final version of its defense bill two weeks ago. Lee offered an amendment to end the 2001 Afghanistan AUMF.

The panel approved Lee’s amendment on a voice vote (in which members simply holler aye and nay and the louder side prevails). Thus, Lee’s plan to de-authorize operations in Afghanistan was incorporated into the bill.

But the GOP brass struck Lee’s amendment, contending the defense bill was not the proper venue for her plan. The Republican leadership asserted (correctly) that AUMF’s fall under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs committee, not the Appropriations committee.

Plus, there is a problem when it comes to writing policy on a spending bill. That would have made the amendment subject to a “point of order” on the House floor, contending the defense bill isn’t the correct legislative home for an AUMF. Still, there are questions about how the House leadership can contravene a democratically-approved amendment from a plan.

Moreover, it’s not like funding for energy programs is naturally linked with funding the Library of Congress in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. Yet the House glued all four topics together in this “mini-bus” spending bill.

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong argued Lee’s proposal was “irresponsible” and could endanger “national security.”

Lee wasn’t having it.

“Over the years, I’ve seen Republican leadership deploy every manner of undemocratic, underhanded tactics in Congress. But stripping my bipartisan amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF -- in the dead of night, without a vote -- may be a new low from Speaker Ryan,” Lee said.

Typically the least controversial appropriations bill is the one in which Congress spends on itself: Lawmakers intend to cough up $3.58 billion on the legislative appropriations bill. In fact, Congress intends to spend less money running things under the Capitol Dome than was spent in fiscal 2010.

U.S. Capitol Police and the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms get a spending boost, in light of last month’s congressional baseball practice shooting.

Lawmakers tucked in a few more dollars after the shooting, which wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.; USCP Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner, congressional aide Zachary Barth and former aide Matt Mika.

Interestingly, Congressional Republicans intend to raise funding for the Congressional Budget office (CBO) by $2 million. CBO received $46.5 million last year. It’s on track for $48.5 million this cycle.

Congress long-billed the Congressional Budget Office as the non-partisan referee when it comes to evaluating the cost of bills and how much they add to the deficit.

Republicans used to like the CBO. But they’ve maligned the office when its actuaries and economists produced less-than-favorable breakdowns regarding how many persons would lack insurance should Congress approve various GOP health care plans.

After Republicans contested the CBO’s evaluation of one version of the health care package, Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., declared that the number crunchers there “are not prophets.”

White House budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the CBO’s health care studies were “not a fair analysis.”

Of course, if Republicans think so little of the CBO, it begs the question why the office is due for a spending infusion this year.

And consider this: Republicans beating up the CBO may set a bad precedent as lawmakers turn to tax reform.

Republicans will soon ask CBO to “score” its tax reform plan. Such harsh criticism of the office gives fellow Republicans plenty of ammo with which to quibble when CBO releases its various analyses. That could help or hurt, depending on who is saying the bill doesn’t save money or adds to the deficit.

So there will be lots of gnashing over a variety of spending issues over the next few days on the House floor. And those debates may only be an appetizer over what Congress may argue when it comes to keeping the government open come September.