Endgame a Tale of Two Chairmen

Posted December 14, 2007 at 6:36pm

While Democrats attempted this weekend to put the finishing touches on a catchall spending bill, the rocky road to the 2007 endgame has been exacerbated by a volatile House Appropriations chairman and a Senate Appropriations chairman weakened by age and health problems.

The result has been frustration on both sides of the Capitol as Democrats endeavored for the first time in nearly two decades to craft a year-end omnibus spending bill — with Senate Democrats, in particular, chafing at House Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s (D-Wis.) brusque, confrontational style as Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has been largely unable to participate physically in the type of laborious negotiations needed to complete the massive bill.

“There’s a lot of disenchantment” with the process, conceded one Democratic Senator, who said Obey is the “new Bill Thomas,” a reference to the combative former Republican House Ways and Means chairman from California.

Indeed, Senate Democrats said Obey has created unnecessary problems by failing to communicate his intentions as he shifted strategies over the past few weeks and that he has appeared unable or unwilling to settle on a single procedural approach on how to put together the omnibus.

In particular, Senate Democrats have been angered when Obey has overruled his own House subcommittee chairmen on deals they’ve made with their Senate counterparts, sources said.

But the most public example came last week when Obey, frustrated as most Congressional Democrats are with the White House’s repeated veto threats, announced he would accede to the president’s budget cap but do it by eviscerating earmarks for both Democratic and GOP lawmakers as well as programs near and dear to President Bush’s heart.

Obey was quickly batted down by Senate Democratic leaders, but only after causing much anger and heartburn among the rank and file in both parties.

Most Senate Democratic sources declined to be directly quoted. But both aides and Senators said that Obey had become a problem, and they expressed frustration at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) inability or unwillingness to rein him in.

House aides shot back that the real problem was with the Senate’s inability to pass anything and the refusal of Republicans to stand up to the White House.

“It’s stupid for the House and Senate to blame each other because the Senate can’t pull anything off. In the end, they can’t pull things off because they don’t have the votes,” said one House Democratic aide.

Meanwhile, Byrd’s physical absence through much of the talks has led some Senate Democrats to complain that the process has taken longer and eliminated a key check on Obey’s ability to unilaterally make decisions.

No one contended that Byrd is not engaged in the process and making decisions, nor would they publicly criticize his handling of the committee. However, Democrats said privately that the basic reality that Byrd is 90 and in increasingly poor health makes it physically difficult for him to perform the day-to-day negotiating duties traditionally carried out by a chairman. That has been particularly true in this instance, where subcommittee chairmen are largely relieved of their duties for much of the deal-making on an omnibus spending bill.

“He’s capable of the negotiations, but he probably has more staff help today,” said the Democratic Senator. “He’s got all the points there. It just takes a bit longer.”

Byrd largely has ceded floor management of appropriations bills to fellow appropriator and Democratic leadership member Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) this year. And during heated bicameral negotiations over the omnibus, Byrd has been conspicuously absent, while Obey meets with Murray, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and House Democratic leaders. Durbin and Dorgan also sit on the Senate Appropriations panel.

Still, Byrd’s staff, by all accounts, have been involved in every aspect of the negotiations, but sources in both parties said problems have arisen when decisions need to be made at the Member level. In those instances, sources said, Murray has been a common go-to person, but Reid has shouldered much of the negotiating himself. Murray declined to elaborate on her role, saying only that, “I am working as a member of the leadership to get a bill done that can be signed by the president.”

Even Republicans said privately that they have been frustrated by the void created by Byrd’s absence from the negotiating table.

“There are concerns on both sides of the aisle about the ability of the [Senate] committee leadership to function,” said one Republican Senator, who asked to remain anonymous.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley defended the work of both panel chairmen.

“From Sen. Reid’s perspective, the Appropriations committees have done an excellent job,” he said. “Chairman Obey is one of the best in the business, and Sen. Byrd’s long experience and love for the institution speaks for itself.”

As they neared the finish line, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol said that while they have had their differences with each other, the real problem has been an intransigent White House intent on vetoing Democratic-sponsored spending bills.

“The issue isn’t the appropriations process,” Manley said. “The issue is the scorched-earth policies that the administration is taking. They started threatening to veto appropriations bills before they’d even seen them and have taken a hard-line stance ever since.”

Echoed the House Democratic aide, “The Republicans love the fact that people are pissed at each other — people are tired — but if we had played everything absolutely right, there’s no reason to believe that Bush wouldn’t have vetoed the bill, and if the Republicans’ only plan is to obstruct, they wouldn’t have cared.”

Still, Democrats knew they were carrying a relatively weak hand into the endgame because they had little leverage.

“Republicans don’t want anything on approps bills. The president wants to cut education, health care, water projects and local grants — cut everything,” the House Democratic aide said. “What it comes down to is there is nothing he wants. How do you leverage anything when the president doesn’t want anything except to cut programs?”

And yet, the House aide noted, the bills will all be done by the end of the year despite the difficult circumstances, a feat the Republican Congress and a Republican president were unable to accomplish a year ago. Indeed, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol appear to finally have reached a way forward that should be able to get White House approval.

As of Friday, most Appropriations subcommittees — on a bicameral basis — had new rough drafts after shaving 1.6 percent from previous versions in order to meet the president’s top line cap of $933 billion. That’s $22 billion less than Democrats wanted to spend.

Senate Republicans said they were still working out how to deal with the Democrats’ proposal to spend $3.7 billion over the president’s budget on veterans’ services. Some expressed support for the proposal to keep the extra funding off-budget as emergency funds, while others continued to hold out the possibility that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would offer an amendment to essentially nix that additional funding.

Senate Democratic leadership aides said that while each subcommittee has been given free reign to divvy up their allocations as they see fit, negotiators in both chambers are expected to use funding for earmarks — both those already included in the various bills as well as new items — as sweeteners to pad the margin of support in the House and Senate. Similarly, aides in the Senate said the omnibus could end up including policy language as well if it will sway on-the-fence Members, particularly Republicans.

John Stanton and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.