An 'Artificial Crisis': Budget battle fizzles after firestorm

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., pulled no punches when the House Rules Committee met Thursday night to prepare a seven-day spending extension to avoid a government shutdown.

“We did the incoming administration no favors when we did not do this,” protested Cole, a respected, senior member of the Rules and Appropriations committees. “I think we put President Trump in a difficult spot. I’m not sure his team realized how difficult a spot. But frankly, leadership of this body should have known.”

What Cole referred to was a failure by the GOP-led Congress to address funding the government weeks or months ago -- rather than just hours before the government was slated to run out of money late Friday night.

“This was an artificial crisis that never should have been created,” pronounced Cole.

Back in December, congressional Democrats only wanted to fund the government through March. But Republicans insisted on an April 28 deadline. They argued the House and Senate would spend the first few months of the Trump administration repealing and replacing ObamaCare. Confirming the President’s Cabinet would consume months. Then there would be the confirmation process for Trump’s Supreme Court selection. This would all chew up weeks. So congressional leaders elected to punt on government spending until late April. After all, many of the annual spending bills for fiscal 2017 – which runs through Sept. 30 – were close to completion late last year.

How hard could it be?

Well, it was.

Senate Democrats slowed confirmations for many of the president’s cabinet members to a crawl. Democrats dragged out debates and votes in the middle of the night and at the crack of dawn. House Republicans stumbled badly to approve a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare, exhausting countless cubic centimeters of political oxygen on that process over the past several weeks.

So, not a lot of time to work on the spending plan to keep the federal lights on. Or was it just a lack of focus?

“You all set this arbitrary deadline. It's absurd you all need another week,” griped Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., to his GOP colleagues at last week’s Rules Committee session.

“If we keep doing it this way, we probably won’t be doing it much longer,” suggested Cole of House Republicans.

“I hope in a week we'll be done,” said Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas.

“I promise you, we’ll pass this one-week resolution and we will be back here May 5 or May 4talking some more,” predicted Hastings.

You can appreciate the skepticism of Hastings. The GOP hasn’t accomplished a lot since January. The failure to advance health care still stings. One can place a healthy wager that the White House and House Republican leadership will flail about with another fire drill in a last-ditch effort to salvage the struggling bill. Maybe Republicans finally get it. Perhaps they don’t. But one thing is clear: expending too much effort on the health care bill again this week is dangerous – while staring at the potential of a government shutdown for the second week in a row Friday night at 11:59:59 pm ET.

“There are a lot of members who will vote for a week-long CR (Continuing Resolution) who won’t vote for a longer CR,” suggested Cole.

A CR is the seven-day, interim spending bill the House and Senate approved Friday to avoid disaster last week. By definition, a CR simply renews all old funding at the current level. Congress could do a CR again. But Cole intimates that this time around, the House and Senate need to approve what’s called an omnibus spending bill where they marry all 12 of the appropriations bills together in a giant, catch-all package. The omnibus would fund the government through the end of September.

In other words, another stopgap CR won’t fly.

On Friday, the House approved the first CR 382-30. 207 Republicans voted yea. That figure is important. With 412 members casting ballots, the GOP scored precisely the number of votes they needed to score to advance the CR on their own. But Cole’s point is spot on. Republicans and Democrats are less willing to back another makeshift spending accord.

“It’s our anticipation we won’t need to do another CR,” suggested House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on the floor Friday.

On Sunday night, word came that lawmakers forged a pact on the omnibus. The blueprint included specific language barring construction of a wall. But lawmakers agreed to $1.5 billion in other border security provisions. There was no cut in money for Planned Parenthood. Much of the EPA’s budget survived. President Trump scored a $21 billion increase in military spending and the possibility of $2.5 billion for a plan to combat ISIL.

It’s doubtful Republicans in both bodies can approve the measure by themselves. Some members will balk at not okaying the individual, 12 appropriations bills by themselves instead of mixing them together. Other Republicans will demand more spending in some areas. Conservatives would prefer less. That’s why Republicans made sure to tuck some major Democratic provisions into the plan.

One of the final sticking points was a $296 million rescue plan for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. Democrats pushed hard for those provisions. Democrats contend they bargained away some 160 “poison pill” riders. Those are special add-ins important to Republicans, but deal-breakers for Democrats.

“This agreement is a good agreement for the American people and takes the threat of a government shutdown off the table,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

So getting this plan off the table early in the week is important for Republicans. That could enhance the likelihood for Republicans to take another crack at repealing and replacing ObamaCare this week.

The chances of that?

“We’ve made great progress,” said Kevin McCarthy on the floor Friday. “I don’t have anything scheduled for next week.”

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.