House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., is
the man charged with making sure all federal departments stay open for business. Rogers is pretty busy these days as Congress approaches a deadline Friday night to fund the government.
Long before Rogers came to Congress, he served as a
prosecutor in rural southeastern Kentucky. And as Rogers toils to keep the government humming, he recently recalled a case from decades ago which provides insight on the conundrum Congress now faces.
The case in question involved a man who was illiterate.
To handle the case appropriately, Rogers needed to know to what degree the man could read - if it all. The man told Rogers he wasn’t bad with “figures” but words were a problem. Rogers pressed the man to determine if he could decipher road signs.
“’I can tell how fir (sic),’” replied the man, according to
Rogers, in a thick, Appalachian dialect, “’But not where to.’”
Such is the case for Hal Rogers these days and the fate of a massive, $1.1 trillion, omnibus spending bill to fund the government. Rogers knows how “fir” lawmakers must go. But he doesn’t know the “where to.”
The “where to” started in late September under the aegis of then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his now famous Congressional “barn-cleaning” exercise. In order to leave House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., a “clean” barn, Boehner engineered a multi-faceted deal. Among other things, this pact funded the government through Dec. 11. Boehner then handed the barn keys over to Ryan and Rogers and headed for the Congressional back 40.
The biggest hurdle stalling an agreement to fund the government are known on Capitol Hill as policy “riders.” Riders are political barnacles which lawmakers sometimes latch to major bills. Sometimes they drag a bill down. Other times, they make a measure more appetizing.
In other words, those who allocate the money like Rogers wouldn’t have too much trouble deciding how to distribute money to run the government. But Republican lawmakers demand that the GOP leadership Velcro a number of policy riders to the omnibus in order to secure their votes. The-most-coveted riders include bolstered vetting of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, curbing President Obama’s environmental policies, lifting the U.S. oil export ban and defunding Planned Parenthood.
The problem is that Obama may veto a bill littered with many of these riders. Republicans seemingly need to affix the riders to the omnibus bill in order to garner GOP support. But the bill needs more than just Republican backing. In order to pass, Republicans must also win Democratic support.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., knows exactly
how tenuous this process is for Ryan. After all, Ryan inherited the same political headache from Boehner: Democrats are necessary to pass the bill. But a bill designed to win over Democrats loses Republicans.
Just last week, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., dashed off a missive to fellow Republicans. Scalise said that many Republicans have a tradition of “voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes.” Scalise argued that “if there are 150 Republicans who hope the bill passes, then there should be 150 Republicans who vote yes on final passage.”
The 150 number is not random.
Republicans now hold 246 seats in the House. GOPers often
demand that a “majority of the majority” vote for a measure. But that hasn’t happened a lot on big-time bills. Boehner fell into a rhythm of consistently commanding anywhere from 28 to 90-plus Republican yeas on major pieces of legislation with Democrats providing the difference. That’s why Pelosi feels she has leverage. Scalise may aspire to cobble together 150 years. But he might
be content with 124, a majority of the House majority.
If not, Republicans could be forced to drop some of the riders, earn Democratic votes and fund the government.
“I think (Ryan) underestimated (Pelosi),” said one Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be identified.
However, Republicans counter this isn’t Ryan’s first dance, either. They note he assembled high-profile budgets and a bipartisan compromise two years ago with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Pelosi isn’t the only one watching the riders.
“Progress is being made but there is no guarantee that these vexatious, poison pill riders won’t close the government,” warned Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., last week.
But when pressed further, Reid didn’t seem too concerned about a potential government shutdown.
“Seriously, I feel good about the omnibus,” Reid said.
That might not be the case today though.
The plan was for Ryan and Rogers to outline an omnibus spending framework by late last week, set it in legislative language over last weekend and perhaps have it ready for a vote sometime this week.
Only that didn’t happen.
There was no agreement on riders. And even if there was, those close to the appropriations process indicated it would take days just to write the bill. That could catapult the process past the December 11th deadline and well into next week. Part of the issue is that the appropriators couldn’t work on smaller issues until the big ones are decided.
“We have a lot of things to work on,” said one source close to the appropriations process. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced a plan to hold members here this weekend to crank out the omnibus bill. Such a tactic is the Congressional version of the “Stockholm Syndrome.” Keep the “hostages” around over the weekend, away from holiday activities like trimming the tree and Christmas shopping – and by early next week, lawmakers might “support” their “captors.” The maneuver could give the GOP brass a chance to involve all members in the process – a frequent criticism leveled at Boehner.
If Republican leaders kept everyone in town and engaged in omnibus negotiations, then no one could complain they were left out or blindsided.
But there was a downside to this approach. The omnibus bill wasn’t ready. The House didn’t have major legislative traffic available for debate. And earlier this week, Democrats commandeered the House floor to make repeated motions on gun legislation. An open stage for Democrats to engage in more parliamentary chicanery on firearms wouldn’t sit well with Republicans.
And never mind there may not be much for members to do at all this weekend. As they say in the Broadway musical The Music Man, “the idle brain is the devil’s playground….”
On Wednesday afternoon, McCarthy altered course and cancelled votes in the House this weekend. The House also prepped a stopgap, five-day spending bill to sidestep a government shutdown Friday night.
Riders are the keys to procuring votes on this bill. And no group is watching the performance of the Republican leadership any closer on the omnibus than the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“My litmus test will be the appropriations bill,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., when asked what he thought of Ryan’s performance as Speaker.
“Ugh!” exclaimed Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., when questioned about his view on the omnibus and physically gesturing a big thumbs down sign.
Brat and other conservatives don’t like the price tag on the spending bill and argue that Boehner scrapped mandatory spending caps known as sequestration during his barn cleaning. So, they’re looking at riders.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he was “worried the leadership will try to weaken” a provision the House approved before Thanksgiving to toughen up standards to admit Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S.
“If we can’t get that on the bill, I think we’re going to have a pretty good fight,” said Labrador.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said the refugee issue could be the magic elixir to win conservative votes.
“Most of the Freedom Caucus would probably swallow hard and vote for it,” predicted Salmon.
But some on Capitol Hill doubt the Freedom Caucus would ever vote yes.
One senior House GOP aide told Fox that the Freedom Caucus “would always find something wrong” with the omnibus and that Republican leaders “should quit fooling ourselves” that those members were worth courting.
But Labrador and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., protested that assertion.
“That is old rhetoric,” said Meadows. “You could phone a 1-900-Pyschic line and get the same result.”
GOP sources asserted the response by the Freedom Caucus was
an effort to make themselves relevant on this debate. In short, if the Freedom Caucus didn’t give any indication there was a path to a yes vote, the leadership may just ignore their wishes and write the bill another way – in a way to lure Democrats.
“You are in a much stronger position when you have some bipartisan buy-in, augured Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a senior member of the Appropriations panel. Still, no one truly knows what the omnibus bill may look like.
“This is the worst game of Etch A Sketch I’ve ever seen,”
said Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), invoking the name of the famous 1960s and ‘70s toy. “You shake it and then you have to start all over again.”
So for now, the House and Senate are prepared to approve the interim, five-day spending bill to avoid a government shutdown on Friday. That brings us back to Hal Rogers and that case he prosecuted so many years ago in Kentucky. The new goal is next
Lawmakers know “how fir,” but still not “where to.”