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Procedural Exit Strategy Uses Divide and Conquer Approach

The late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) used to tell audiences that when he first came to Washington, D.C., he was “out to change the world.” “Now,” he continued, “after over two decades in the House, I consider it a success if I can just leave a room with some measure of dignity still intact.”

[IMGCAP(1)]In a similar vein, the new Democratic majority took control of Congress last January with a passion to change the world and a pledge to restore “the regular order.” In late December it limped out of Washington with its dignity barely intact and the regular order in shambles. Instead of being able to boast, “We ended the Iraq War,” Democrats left town muttering, “At least we didn’t shut down the government.”

In all fairness, it was unrealistic to think Congress could unilaterally end the war in Iraq without stranding troops on the ground. Moreover, it was unrealistic to think the new majority could force through major spending increases for its domestic priorities. It still had to deal with an intransigent Republican president and a badly divided Senate where 60 votes are needed to accomplish almost anything.

To their credit, Democrats did enact four of their “Six for ’06” new directions agenda, including more aid for college students, a minimum-wage increase, an energy bill (absent the promised repeal of oil industry tax subsidies) and implementation of the remaining 9/11 commission recommendations. Moreover, Democrats deserve kudos for enacting tough new lobbying and ethics reforms and for saving more than 20 million Americans from higher taxes by repatching the alternative minimum tax (though without the “pay-as-you-go” offsets House Democrats twice attempted).

On the essential business of funding the government in an orderly and timely fashion, however, the Democrats (like their predecessors) failed miserably. Not one of the 12 regular appropriations bills was enacted before the start of the fiscal year. Only the Defense spending bill made it safely to the White House on its own, but more than a month late. For whatever reasons, the Senate didn’t even try to bring five of the remaining 11 bills to the floor separately, while the other six didn’t make it to conference. That left the two chambers in a mad scramble to wrap up their remaining work before the holidays.

That’s when things began to get interesting, as Democratic leaders in both chambers worked furiously behind the scenes to cobble together a procedural exit strategy. Forget the pingpong analogy used to describe the process of bouncing amendments back and forth between the chambers in lieu of a conference committee. The 2007 finale was more elaborate and choreographed — a game of kabuki badminton, using two shuttlecocks simultaneously.

When last we left the imperiled appropriations process (my Dec. 10 column), the Democrats had crashed a two-decker minibus money bill and were poised to test run an 11-bill omnibus measure. Using the House-passed State/foreign operations appropriations bill and Senate amendment to it, House Democrats went to the Rules Committee to make in order two amendments: The first combined the pre-negotiated $485 billion, 11-bill omnibus package (including more than $11 billion in emergency spending), while the second amendment contained $31 billion in funds for the troops in Afghanistan (but not for Iraq as the president had requested).

The 1,472-page omnibus amendment was published on the Rules Committee’s Web site on Sunday, Dec. 16, along with a 2,214-page joint explanatory statement. (An estimated 9,800 earmarks for Members’ district projects, costing more than $10 billion, were tucked into the explanatory statement inserted in the Congressional Record on Monday rather than being included in the legislative language of the bill.)

At 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17, the Rules Committee met and granted a special rule that made in order a motion by Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to adopt the two amendments, subject to an automatic division of the question, meaning separate votes on the omnibus and Afghanistan propositions.

Later that evening, after adoption of the special rule, the House approved the omnibus amendment 253-154. The Afghanistan amendment, on the other hand, barely squeaked through on a 206-201 vote. As anticipated, an overwhelming majority of Democrats supported both amendments while an overwhelming majority of Republicans opposed both.

Back in the Senate, the script already was written. After Republicans demonstrated that Democrats could not shut down a filibuster, a unanimous consent agreement was struck that allowed for three amendments on the war funding issue — all of which would be subject to a 60-vote threshold for passage. The first, by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), expanded the Defense supplemental to $70 billion that could be used for Iraq as well as Afghanistan, without limits on the president. Two amendments were allowed to that: one by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) calling for a nine-month withdrawal of most troops; the other by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) setting the end of 2008 as a “goal” for withdrawal of most troops from Iraq. Feingold’s amendment was rejected, 24-71; and Levin-Reed’s mustered a 50-45 majority, 10 votes short of the 60 needed. McConnell’s amendment was then adopted, 70-25.

Back in the House, all that was left was ratification of McConnell’s Iraq amendment. It was adopted, 272-142, with a majority of Republicans voting for it, and a majority of Democrats voting against. The leadership had succeeded in sending the bill to the president with different majorities voting for different parts of the same bill. The double-shuttlecock ploy worked: Two birds in the hand were worth one to the Bush.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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