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Democrats Avoiding Spending Fights

House Democrats, staring down challenging midterm elections and a GOP opposition eager for opportunities to decry wasteful Washington spending, have yet to lay out a plan for moving the annual spending bills through the chamber.

Although it’s likely that at least one spending bill will come to the floor during the three-week work period that begins Tuesday, Democrats have multiple incentives to avoid appropriations fights before November.

Democrats, with a few exceptions, are the only ones submitting House earmark requests this year, which Republicans hope will strengthen their hand to portray the majority party as oblivious to deficit concerns.

Complicating the situation further is the prospect that any bill the House passes might stall in the Senate. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.) and other Democratic leaders have tended in past years to press ahead on appropriations bills regardless of their prospects in the Senate. But this year, the scheduling dynamic is different.

“We’re basing it on the ability of the Senate to act,” Obey spokesman Ellis Brachman said.

While stressing that Democrats’ “strong preference” remained moving individual bills through regular order, a leadership aide said, “We can’t possibly vote on all of these if we know the Senate isn’t going to do any of them,” but he predicted the House would pass one or more bills before the August recess.

Obey’s staff was less committal. When asked how confident he was that the House would pass at least one spending bill this month, Brachman responded, “We’ll have to see what happens.”

The circumstances surrounding this year’s appropriations debate are unprecedented. Republicans, minus a handful of rogue lawmakers, are adhering to a self-imposed one-year ban on all earmark requests. That puts Democrats — who had hoped to snag the high ground on earmarks when they adopted a permanent ban on Congressionally directed spending to for-profit companies — in a potentially vulnerable position.

Republicans are eager to use Democrats’ earmark requests and spending proposals to try to paint the majority as fiscally irresponsible. Although Democrats dismiss the GOP earmark ban as an election-year gimmick, the fact that the Democrats would have almost exclusive ownership over earmarks during debate on this year’s bills is just one more reason they are treading carefully.

“We know where the Republicans are going to go,” said the Democratic leadership aide. “They’re going to call any spending wasteful spending even when it’s on essential programs.”

Four months ahead of the midterms, Democrats’ desire to demonstrate that they can govern effectively by passing individual bills is bumping up against leaders’ desire to protect their vulnerable Members from tough votes.

“We’ll just have to see how far we get on the individual bills,” Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen said.

Given the Senate uncertainty, the Maryland Democrat said, House leaders would determine on a “case-by-case” basis which spending bills to bring to the floor.

Appropriators typically work across party lines on their spending bills. However, election-year pressures, combined with the House Republicans’ earmarks stance, has created the potential for the process to be far less bipartisan this year.

Rep. Jeff Flake, who offered 49 failed amendments to strike earmarks last year, is preparing another barrage of challenges. The Arizona Republican is optimistic that the GOP ban could help him draw more support this year from within his party — and perhaps even from some skittish Democrats. “I think every Republican would support every challenge, and I think a lot of Democrats would as well, it being an election year and a lot of focus on this topic,” Flake said.

The appropriations bills funding homeland security, defense, and military construction and veterans programs are among the most likely contenders to see floor action before the elections. House Appropriations subcommittees have marked up six of the 12 annual spending bills, but none has been through full committee yet.

Democratic leaders, faced with spending fatigue within their moderate ranks, wrestled with whether to adopt a budget resolution, before settling on a one-year “budget-enforcement” document, which they only narrowly adopted before leaving town for the July Fourth recess.

And Democrats already have gotten a taste of the type of amendments that can cause their Members headaches. On June 29, for example, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science defeated a Republican amendment that would have effectively barred the Justice Department from fighting Arizona’s controversial new immigration law.

“Right now, every action on the floor is with consideration of how it plays in November,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the Appropriations panel who predicted that Democratic leaders would want to spare their Members tough votes on spending bills. “Every little micro-vote becomes really important in an individual battleground.”

Still, some Democratic appropriators are eager to move ahead with their bills.

“There are tough votes all the time … but people just need to deal with that,” Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) said. “If we are going to start shielding ourselves from tough votes … you maybe end up with the Pledge of Allegiance and nothing else at the end of the day.”

Republicans also are bracing for a fight over any Democratic efforts to restrict amendments to spending bills. “Based on this majority’s past record of stifling and restricting debate, particularly in the appropriations process, we expect a repeat performance this year — if they ever manage to actually produce some bills, that is,” one GOP aide said last week.

In 2008, Democrats adopted a “pre-printing requirement,” mandating that amendments to appropriations bills be printed in the Congressional Record one or more days before they were offered.

Last summer, partisan tensions boiled over when Democrats began bringing spending bills to the floor under rules with tighter restrictions on amendments. Irate Republican lawmakers accused Democrats of trampling on the tradition of a more open appropriations process, but Obey and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) countered that the GOP forced their hand by trying to stymie floor debate with irrelevant amendments.

Brachman said Friday that no decisions had been made about what the amendment policy would be when this year’s spending bills come to the floor.

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