House GOP Is Pleased
House Republicans were almost in a state of euphoria as they left Washington, D.C., on Wednesday — willing to gloss over deals made by President Bush with Democrats on a pork-filled omnibus spending package and an energy bill that many in the GOP had publicly ripped for months.
As House Republicans know well, life in the minority is supposed to be drudgery, but a series of cave-ins by Democratic leaders on the alternative minimum tax patch, an overall spending level, war funding for Iraq without strings and an extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program had Republican leaders crowing about their successful strategy as Bush’s veto backup.
“On issue after issue, the accomplishments that have occurred were really on our turf and on our terms,” House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said. “The American people had a good year. The troops are funded and their taxes aren’t going up.”
But House Republicans didn’t get everything they wanted, as Bush engaged in just a touch of triangulation this year as he cut deals with Democrats to bolster his energy legacy, secure funding for the Iraq War, and earlier in the year, sign a higher education spending bill that was criticized by House conservatives as a costly expansion of entitlements.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member on Energy and Commerce, was disappointed that Bush signed an energy bill that will not add a drop of oil or any natural gas supplies, while adding a slew of mandates onto the economy.
“He rubbed my nose in it,” Barton said, in a jovial mood despite Bush holding a signing ceremony with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Barton complained the bill would force people to drive smaller cars and trucks, change their lifestyles, buy different light bulbs and pay more money.
“Your cost is going to go up across the board. … I’m disappointed that the president signed it, but I respect him and we’ll be together more than we’ll be at cross purposes,” Barton said.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), meanwhile, thought Bush could have pushed harder to keep $3.7 billion in extra veterans’ spending under his $933 billion budget gap, and most Republicans voted against the package and ripped it as a “pig” packed with earmarks and gimmicks, even while taking credit for shrinking it.
“It’s hard for me to be very critical of a president that’s going to start 2008 in a much stronger position than he started 2007,” Blunt said. “Our members are leaving in late December about as happy as you can be and still be in the minority.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to declare victory given that the omnibus appropriations bill was nearly $20 billion shy of what Democrats wanted to spend.
“While I can be critical of this bill, it’s still better than anything I’ve seen at the end of the year since I’ve been here,” Boehner said. (Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy said later that Boehner meant to add “for the minority.”)
Overall, House Republican leaders said they understood the president wanted to make sure he got his top priority — funding for the war without strings attached — and had to show at least a little flexibility with Democrats in order to get that funding. “Funding for the troops is very important to the president,” Boehner said. “This is his No. 1 priority.”
“With the Democrats playing politics with funding for our troops I think the president had very little choice on the omnibus bill,” conservative Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said. “Absent that I would have wanted the president to veto it.”
House conservatives would have preferred to see a yearlong continuing resolution without earmarks, but remained in good cheer.
“All things considered, we got the best we could have hoped for,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, said. He then conceded that the final omnibus spending bill was “probably better than we would have done if we were in the majority.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who heads the Republican Study Committee, said conservatives were not “jumping up and down” and happy about the final legislative push, but that they took solace in the fact the Democrats were able to pass so little of their own agenda throughout the year and that the party ultimately was forced to make concessions on issues such as the AMT patch.
“The omnibus is a bad bill,” Hensarling said. But he said conservatives were content “because it’s a better bill than we could have hoped for from a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate.”
Hensarling conceded that “a CR would have been better for the nation.” But instead of laying blame with Bush for ultimately supporting a level of earmarks he initially said he would not, Hensarling said it was Democrats’ fault for not cutting them further.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sounded disappointed that Bush wasn’t able to stick with his initial desire to see a 50 percent cut in earmarks from the last year Republicans controlled the purse strings.
“I would have certainly liked to see the president take a firmer stand on earmarks,” Flake said, asserting that the final number is 80 percent of what the level was two years ago.
“It’s obscene,” he said. “I would have liked to see a tougher stand there.”
But in the end, Flake said there were still some positive points for conservatives.
“We’re just glad the president dusted off the veto pen and finally used it,” he said.
And while his conservative colleagues were praising their last-minute victories and calling the spending package the best bill they could get from Democrats, Flake admitted the situation didn’t necessarily make a very good final statement.
“Unfortunately, it makes the case for divided government,” Flake said. “We’re incapable of policing ourselves.”