Still bitter after last year’s appropriations battles with President Bush, Senate Democrats are holding out the possibility of punting this year’s annual spending bills to the next president if Bush refuses to negotiate again this year.
“We’re going to try to work with him to get all the appropriations bills passed, but he’s got to deal with us. We don’t have to deal with him,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday. “If he thinks he can do to us what he did last year, it just won’t work. We don’t need him.”
Reid’s second-in-command, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), responded similarly when asked if Democrats would spend more time this year working to pass appropriations bills.
“A great deal depends on the signals from the White House,” Durbin said. “If the president wants to delay or somehow engage in the same thing we went through last year, it’s a waste of time.”
For months last year, Reid and other Democrats implored Bush to compromise on the $22 billion difference between the White House budget and that of Congress. However, Bush repeatedly insisted that Democrats cut all $22 billion from their spending bills or face a certain veto, and he rejected Democratic offers to shave the difference between the two in half.
Backed up against the Christmas holiday, Democrats eventually relented and sent Bush an omnibus spending bill that largely adhered to White House budget levels — but that was only after rocketing past the Oct. 1 statutory deadline for enacting new appropriations bills and passing multiple continuing resolutions to keep the government funded. In fact, the Senate did not even consider five of the 12 annual appropriations bills on the floor in 2007.
This year, Bush already has demanded that lawmakers cut the number of earmarked pet projects in half or potentially face a veto.
“We learned a bitter lesson as President Bush discovered his veto pen last year, refusing to compromise with us to increase domestic spending,” said Durbin, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “There were a lot of programs cut that were very painful. … Frankly, I’m counting on the next president, whoever that person may be, to be more reasonable.”
Reid said Bush no longer holds the “silver grail this year. He had the silver grail last year because we had to worry about coming back [in 2008] with a CR with him in charge. We don’t have that to worry about this time.” Reid stopped short of saying Democrats would wait for the next president, who Democrats hope will be from their party, to be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
Even Republicans said the presidential election likely would interfere with the appropriations process and prevent most bills from passing.
“I think the calendar mitigates against a significant amount of appropriations bills getting done before we adjourn for the November election,” Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said.
Gregg, who also sits on Appropriations, added, “Depending on who’s elected president, that person is going to want to restructure the entire appropriations budget. … So I think it’s reasonable to presume that [a CR] might get punted over to say February , in order to give the new administration leverage.”
Still, Gregg predicted that Democrats would not want to drag their feet on spending bills dealing with national security, such as those funding the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State.
One senior Senate Democratic aide cautioned that there still are a number of unknowns that will factor into what Democrats ultimately decide to do on spending bills this year.
First, Democrats will need to hammer out a budget resolution, expected sometime in March. Secondly, they hope to have a presidential nominee from whom to take cues. After that, they will need to feel out Republicans and the White House to see what level of cooperation may be achievable, the aide explained.
“Until we have answers to those questions, we won’t have the final cumulative answer to what to do in fiscal year 2009,” the aide said.
Plus, even if Reid would rather leave appropriations bills to the next president, he could run into significant resistance from some of his rank-and-file Members.
“I think we will work really hard to get appropriations bills through the subcommittee and full committee,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
Still, Dorgan said he is realistic about the political environment in which Democrats find themselves.
The president in his budget has “an unending appetite for emergency funding for Afghanistan, Iraq and so on, but he’s zeroing out a lot of important domestic investments,” Dorgan said. “So we’re going to need a little cooperation from the White House. If we don’t get it, it’s going to be very hard to move appropriations bills.”
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.