Though they condemned Republicans last year for their failure to pass spending bills, Senate Democrats find themselves in much the same situation this year, with little hope of fully funding the government until late December and no current prospects for sending any bill to the president before the beginning of the new fiscal year next week.
“It’s very difficult to see any way forward until Christmas,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an Appropriations Committee member. Still, she noted that scenario could change if the White House backs off its threat to veto as many as nine of the 12 annual spending bills.
Democrats based much of the “do-nothing” Congress tag they used against Republicans last year on the then-majority’s inability and unwillingness to take up spending bills, and the irony of the current situation has not been lost on Republicans.
“There are all kinds of things swirling around, and it would be unfair to say that this is a deliberate failure on the part of the [Democratic] leadership, just as it was unfair for the Democrats to say that about the Republicans in the previous situation,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who also sits on the spending committee.
Bennett said the lag on appropriations in recent years is “partly the nature of the beast,” partly the Iraq War, partly choices made by leadership and partly the narrow 51-49 majority enjoyed by Democrats.
Year after year — regardless of which party runs Congress — lawmakers routinely fail to meet their Oct. 1 deadline for sending new spending bills to the president, and this year is no different apart from the circumstances preventing Senate action.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” said Bill Hoagland, who served as a budget and appropriations aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Hoagland detailed the tight Congressional calendar, unexpected events such as Hurricane Katrina, and jurisdictional tensions among Senators as mitigating factors.
Over the past few years, “Appropriations has taken a back seat to almost everything on the legislative calendar,” said Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
Indeed, both Reid and Frist found difficulty during their tenures balancing the pressures to pass other bills, including a fair amount of politically useful legislation.
“Overall, the biggest problem is the amount of time necessary to move legislation across the floor,” said Frist’s former chief of staff, Eric Ueland.
Democrats agreed but said Republicans have made it more difficult for them this year by objecting to nearly half of all the bills Reid has tried to bring before the Senate.
“In 2006, they didn’t do their jobs. In 2007, they’re doing everything in their power to make sure we can’t do our jobs,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.
But Hoagland was more blunt, saying appropriations are “not as sexy or vote-attention getters” as some of the other measures Majority Leaders have at their disposal.
For Frist, it was flag burning, medical malpractice reform and judicial nominations that served as political bludgeons. For Reid, the Iraq War and the management style of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been the top partisan controversies.
Cochran said he fears Democrats could end up much as Republicans did last year — with 10 appropriations bills being cobbled together in an omnibus that didn’t get passed until early this year.
To be sure, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), another Appropriations member, said Frist made “a conscious decision [in 2006] … not to bring the individual bills onto the floor because it was an election year, and he didn’t want to bring them up … as election-year vehicles for messaging.”
Cochran also bemoaned that failed strategy, in which Republicans lost their majority in both the House and Senate. “I guess a lot of Republicans who were up for re-election were going to have difficulties [voting on appropriations], and sure enough, they did. They got beat. I would have thought the [Democratic] leadership would have learned from that,” Cochran said.
This year, Reid’s problem in moving appropriations bills stems partly from the president’s demand that Congressional Democrats drop about $22 billion from their overall spending plan or face vetoes.
“Once those flags were thrown, the whole dynamics of the process was changed,” said Jesse Jacobs, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Indeed, appropriations bills were slightly behind schedule this summer, but the president’s veto threats appeared to stop them in their tracks, particularly in the Senate. So far, the Senate has passed four appropriations bills — only one of which was completed prior to the August recess. The House has passed all 12 measures and is waiting to conference them with the Senate.
Last week, Reid said he hopes to complete two more — the Defense Department spending bill and the Commerce-Justice-Science measure — before leaving for a weeklong recess on Oct. 5.
Even if those bills pass the Senate, it’s unclear when they will actually be transmitted to the president. Democrats have hinted that they may delay sending the president bills until they can reach an agreement with him on the overall spending cap.
“It’s important for us to come to an understanding with the president when it comes to appropriations,” is all the Senate Democratic leadership aide would say.
Ueland said the veto threats add another layer of difficulty to the Democrats’ plight this year, because even though Republicans often let appropriations slide until Christmas, they had an advantage in being able to work out an overall spending cap with the White House in advance.
Democrats are in a situation now, said Ueland, “where you go to conference, then bring bills out that are wildly overspending. They’ll have to get vetoed, and then you have to start all over again.”
Of course, Reid has said repeatedly that he is trying to work things out with the president and new Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle, who, so far, have shown no sign of budging.
“All we do after we finish this head-butt is say, ‘Your headache is worse than mine.’ I don’t want a headache. I want to try to work this out,” said Reid, who nonetheless predicted long odds for that happening. “But this president, his ability to negotiate is very unusual. It’s his way or no way. I’ve never worked with a president, or very few people in my life, who works this way.”
In lieu of sending new funding schemes to the president in advance of the Oct. 1 due date, Congress instead will likely send the president a continuing resolution that keeps the government afloat until possibly Nov. 17.
In the meantime, the Appropriations Committee once revered for its all-encompassing power on Capitol Hill, appears to be losing its cache.
“We’re learning that it’s not the most powerful,” Cochran said. “The most power is held by the leadership.”