Conservative Republicans don’t have much to cheer about these days. Their party has been kicked out of power, President Bush is working with Democrats to reach a bipartisan immigration deal many conservatives oppose, and the Iraq War continues to fester with dwindling public support. [IMGCAP(1)]
But they do have one cause to rally around — Bush’s newly invigorated veto pen.
Not so much on Iraq, the issue that continues to cause the GOP rank-and-file the most heartburn, but on domestic spending.
Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman issued a veto threat May 11 on essentially all domestic spending bills because Democrats plan to add more than $20 billion to Bush’s $933 billion request in their fiscal 2008 budget blueprint due later this week. That could lead to the biggest confrontation between Congress and the White House on spending since the 1995 government shutdown, which helped President Bill Clinton reclaim relevance after the 1994 Republican rout. It also is a giant slab of red meat served up for starved conservatives.
“It’s some of the best news we’ve received in months,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “We would hope that the president vetoes spending bills enthusiastically and frequently. House conservatives stand by that call and we’d be happy to supply all of the ink for that veto pen.”
Hensarling said life in the minority means conservatives sometimes can “take really bad bills and turn them into merely bad bills,” but the ability to sustain vetoes will keep Republicans relevant.
“Knowing that the president is willing to pull out his veto pen and we can sustain his veto puts House conservatives in the battle,” Hensarling said.
Conservative Republicans have engaged in internecine warfare for the past several years, blaming Republican appropriators and the president himself for allowing a rising tide of earmarks and spending and ultimately for defeat at the polls.
But now they can argue Democrats are even bigger spenders.
“There have been times when I have been critical of spending bills produced by Republican Congresses,” Hensarling said. “All of a sudden they seem to be models of spending propriety compared to what Democrats are doing.”
Republicans already are circulating a letter pledging to sustain Bush’s vetoes of spending bills, said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee.
“There has to be some cop on the beat on spending this year and if the president doesn’t lay down a marker, the Democrats will just spend and spend and spend,” Ryan said. “Somebody’s got to pull away the punch bowl.”
But while conservatives crowed, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) fumed. “The administration’s newfound fiscal rectitude I find sidesplitting,” Obey said without a hint of laughter. “These are the same people who think it’s OK to provide $57 billion this year to provide tax cuts for people who make more than $1 million a year all provided with borrowed money. … These are the same people who decided they want to pay for the Iraq War on the installment plan. … Now they want to suggest that $20 billion for education, health care, science and energy research is somehow fiscally dangerous? It is an absurd proposition which is meant to divert attention from the real fiscal irresponsibility of this administration.”
Obey said many of his Republican colleagues also want to fund increases in domestic spending programs and he hopes they break from the White House.
“I don’t hear too many people getting together and saying ‘Let’s hold the line on cancer research, let’s hold the line on veterans’ benefits, let’s hold the line on energy research,’” Obey said.
Obey added that he has directed his subcommittee chairs to look for programs to cut as well as add, and to be “as responsive as possible” to Republican ranking members in an attempt to build bipartisan bills.
“One of the reasons the Republicans lost control of Congress last time is that their hard-right cadre in the caucus — the [RSC] — refused to support a budget resolution that funded programs that both parties are interested in,” Obey contended, pointing to the subsequent failure to pass domestic spending bills. “If Mr. Portman is suggesting that is the recipe for success this time, I think that’s a recipe for losing more seats. … I would hope that we could avoid that kind of belly bumping.”
Obey said that the issuance of the veto threat before even a single spending bill had been unveiled “indicates that the White House is engaged in largely a political operation. … They would rather govern by dividing than govern by compromise.”
A Bush strategy of vetoing popular spending bills also could come under fire from many of the same moderate Republicans already squeamish about continuing to support the war.
Ryan acknowledged that there will be some tension within the party when it comes to overrides because some may be wooed by earmarks and some moderates simply want more spending. “I think on some bills you are going to have a problem,” Ryan said, but added that he hoped that Republicans could stick together.
Hensarling said the override battles will be a key test of whether Republicans “get” the message he says voters were sending them — that they want less spending in Washington, D.C.
“I think more and more of us get it and I believe the president will have enough support to sustain his vetoes, and if not, we better get used to a long period in the minority.”
Democrats also pointed to the passage last week by a veto-proof 302-120 margin of a separate $4.5 billion disaster relief bill labeled “pork” by some Republicans when it was included as part of the Iraq spending bill.
Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for Portman, said Congress should be able to live within the $933 billion cap Bush proposed. “As long as we’re not doing so by raiding our Defense spending, we’ll be able to work this out. If not, then you can expect vetoes,” he said.
Democrats first must complete their fiscal 2008 budget, something they hope to do late this week. House and Senate negotiators are expected to paper over their differences on tax cuts by including triggers that would allow some use of surpluses projected for fiscal 2012, as well as agreeing on a final spending level at least $20 billion more than Bush sought.
Behind schedule following months of debate over Iraq, the House will not start moving appropriations bills to the floor before June, according to Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Bernards said they still hope to complete all of the bills with the exception of the Defense spending measure by the July 4 recess.
The Defense bill is likely to be delayed as the continuing Iraq saga plays out, with the House passing a short-term extension last week and Senate leaders looking to fashion a bipartisan compromise, with various scenarios floating around of a longer-term spending bill that would include benchmarks for the Iraqis to meet and consequences if they fail to meet them.
One possibility floated by Senate leaders is to pass a placeholder this week simply to get to conference with the House, with the goal of getting a bill to the president’s desk by the Memorial Day recess. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he continues to meet with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to try to hammer out a compromise, and that a bill will be on the enate floor by the end of the week.“Democrats and Republicans agree the Senate needs to get a bill into conference as soon as possible, and we need to work together to make that happen,” Reid said.
Reid introduced two amendments to the Water Resources Development Act on Monday that would give the Senate an opportunity to vote on Iraq proposals, including a proposal to shift the mission of U.S. forces from combat by March 31, 2008, and an amendment similar to the bill already vetoed by the president except it allows the president to waive timelines for redeploying troops. Votes on the amendments will occur no later than Wednesday morning, Reid said.
“Democrats believe that we should do something very, very close to what was done in the bill that we sent to the president that he vetoed,” he said.
Obey said he was hopeful that a compromise could be worked out next week. “It’s much more difficult in the Senate and we are going to have to have a compromise,” Obey said. He called the bill a “preliminary bout” leading up to battles on the fiscal 2008 war spending bills.
The House also may consider a lobbying reform bill as well as energy price gouging legislation next week.