Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) isn’t taking anything for granted.
Just a month before he is slated to take up one of the Senate’s most powerful positions — chairman of the Appropriations Committee — the genteel Cochran appears modest, and maybe a little superstitious, about his upcoming ascension.
“If I am selected by the Members of my committee and Republicans in the Conference … to be chairman, I will take the job seriously and try to measure up to the expectations people have for doing the kind of job that will reflect credit on the Senate,” Cochran said in an interview.
Despite his protestations that he has not yet been chosen, Republican appropriators — who praise him effusively — confirmed last week that they will champion his rise to the chairmanship in January, when the current chairman, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), is scheduled to step down due to Republican-imposed term limits on chairmanships.
But Cochran’s guarded approach to reaching what is likely the pinnacle of his 30-year Congressional career is just one clue to how the style and tone of the Appropriations Committee will change under his guidance.
For the past eight years, Stevens — a man known for his quick temper and gruff demeanor — has led the panel’s Republicans, with mixed results. While most observers say the chairman alone can’t solve every appropriations delay or problem, some say that Stevens’ approach sometimes worked against the early and quick passage of spending bills.
Even Stevens acknowledges that Cochran will bring a more subdued and purposeful approach to the posting than he did.
“He does bring a different background than I have. … He’s less confrontational, perhaps, more deliberate,” Stevens said.
Beyond personality, Stevens and others predict that Cochran will not be as controversial as the Alaska Republican, who has been roundly criticized by public-interest groups and his fellow Senators for pushing too much of what they call “pork barrel” spending for his home state.
“I don’t think he’ll be under the same pressures I’ve been under,” said Stevens, who said his efforts to bring home federal dollars come from the fact that Alaska is a relatively new state with sizable water, sewer and transportation needs.
But Mississippi certainly has not been hurting for federal funds, and won’t under Cochran’s leadership.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the emphasis shifted from Alaska to Mississippi to some degree,” said former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).
That shift may be subtle, given that the soft-spoken Cochran — who turns 67 tomorrow — likes to conduct his business largely behind the scenes. Still, less-senior GOP appropriators say they expect Cochran to quickly establish his leadership and command of the complicated, and grueling, appropriations process.
“He certainly is going to be very much in charge,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), an Appropriations member.
Livingston, who currently runs an appropriations-oriented lobbying shop in Washington, said one of the incoming chairman’s strengths as a leader is that “whether he agrees with you or not, he always listens.”
Cochran also may help repair relations with the senior Democrat on the Appropriations panel, Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.). Byrd’s relationship with Stevens suffered as Byrd became more confrontational with the White House and with Stevens over the war in Iraq.
“He’s never been adversarial toward me personally, and I don’t think he will change,” Cochran said of Byrd. “We have a friendly, mutually respectful relationship, which I expect will continue.”
In a statement, Byrd said he was looking forward to working with Cochran, saying the two have “a cooperative relationship that will serve the Senate and the country well in the coming years.”
Cochran already has a two-year history of working with Byrd as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. And the smoothness with which they were able to pass the homeland security spending bill impressed Cochran’s colleagues.
In persuading his colleagues not to ask for funding for specific home-state projects in the bill, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Cochran “made a convincing argument that the administration was due a lot of deference” in how they apportioned homeland security grants to states and localities.
“It’s a credit to his skill and leadership,” said McConnell, himself chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
In addition, Cochran appears to have a clear picture of what he’d like to do as chairman — namely, getting rid of the yearly omnibus spending bill to avoid flaps like the one that emerged late last month over an Internal Revenue Service-authored provision in this year’s mammoth appropriations bill.
While Cochran said he is not always opposed to earmarks or other riders, he said they must be carefully vetted. He lamented that the IRS provision, which would have given Appropriations members and staff unfettered access to individuals’ IRS records, was not routed through the tax-writing panels.
“If it’s not agreed upon by all those who are concerned, then it doesn’t get included in the bill,” Cochran said. “I’m not going to engage in a practice of putting things in bills without consultation with other Senators.”
Still, Cochran said it will take a team effort to eliminate omnibus spending bills.
“I want the committee to take action in a timely fashion on our bills so that we don’t have to wait until the last minute and have an omnibus like we did this year,” said Cochran. “So it’s going to take a renewed sense of responsibility on the part of Congress as a whole and the administration to work together to ensure that this kind of practice is not repeated.”
Cochran’s determination to avoid omnibus spending bills and get individual measures enacted early was evident even back in 1995.
As an impasse over spending bills caused most of the government to shut down that winter, the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration along with the school lunch and food stamp programs were up and running. Cochran, who had been chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, made that possible by getting his bill signed by the president by Aug. 6, 1995 — a full two months before the start of the new fiscal year.
This year, too, Cochran helped make the homeland security spending bill one of only four appropriations measures that actually made it to the president’s desk.
Still, Stevens said having that kind of track record for all 13 appropriations bills is “formidable.”
Appropriations subcommittee chairmen, commonly known as “cardinals,” can be difficult to manage, warned Stevens.
“They’re not cardinals. They each think they’re the pope,” he said. Stevens, of course, could end up being one of those living, breathing management problems as chairman of the subcommittee on Defense.
But Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chairs the Energy and water subcommittee, said that even the best of chairmen can sometimes be helpless in the face of Appropriations delays.
“There’s only so much you can do when the system bogs down,” said Domenici. “It’s not necessarily the fault of the chairman or the chairman of the subcommittee. It’s a combination of factors. I don’t know if anybody can fix that.”
McConnell agreed, saying that “no matter who’s been chairman, it’s been a challenge to get all 13 appropriations bills through” without resorting to an omnibus.
As he moves into the chairmanship, Cochran said he is ready for the badgering and swarming of reporters.
While Stevens holds court with reporters in a largely informal “scrum” each Tuesday after the Senate Republican lunch, Cochran says he’d like to have more organized meetings with the media.
“I may try to have a regular meeting with the press in a real room with a real table and chairs, and therefore, hopefully, more orderly,” Cochran said. He added, though, “I won’t call it the children’s hour as President Roosevelt once did.”