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GOP Appropriators Jab Old Friends

Spending Rift Is a Sharp Break in Tradition for Historically Bipartisan Panel

Senate GOP appropriators’ recent call for a domestic spending freeze marked a sharply political turn for the historically bipartisan panel — and a significant victory for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who quietly pushed the group to take the aggressive move.

The Appropriations Committee for decades has been among the least partisan venues on Capitol Hill even in previous years like this one, with spending an election-year flash point. Democratic and Republican members of the panel have guarded their right to bipartisan camaraderie — and the financial benefits it helped them deliver to their home states.

That dynamic may have reached its zenith in 2008, when Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) not only actively campaigned for fellow appropriator Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), but also testified on his behalf as a character witness in his corruption trial.

“There are three parties in Washington: Republicans, Democrats and appropriators,” quipped one Republican lawmaker, citing a well-worn saying. “It’s like a fraternity.”

But that changed Tuesday, when Republicans sent a letter to Inouye calling for the spending freeze. It was signed by all 12 Senate Appropriations Republicans — ranking member Thad Cochran (Miss.), McConnell, Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Kit Bond (Mo.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and George Voinovich (Ohio).

[IMGCAP(1)]The plan is modeled on a proposal drafted by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that would set a spending limit about $26 billion below the administration’s budget request, according to Republicans.

The letter is remarkable on a number of levels. According to a review of the Appropriations Committee’s Republican website, which includes the letter and an accompanying press release from Cochran, it is the first time in at least two years that all of the committee’s Republicans have taken a position on an issue.

While appropriators tend to avoid politically charged language when discussing committee business, the letter includes a number of shots at the Democrats’ inability to adopt a budget this year, noting that “despite the clear need for a long term plan that would bring our nation’s debt under control, it is apparent that Congress will be denied the opportunity to debate a Federal budget this year.”

Republican appropriators also announced the letter at McConnell’s weekly press gathering Tuesday — an event his leadership team uses to roll out the week’s messaging items and to launch attacks on Senate Democrats and the Obama administration.

A veteran GOP aide acknowledged that Tuesday’s letter and the discussions that led to it represent “a sort of seismic shift” in how the committee operates.

According to lawmakers and aides familiar with the situation, the unified GOP committee position came out of a series of meetings called by McConnell over the past several weeks. During these Members-only meetings in McConnell’s Capitol office, the GOP leader argued that the growing national debt and public concern over federal spending necessitated a Republican appropriators approach this year.

McConnell made the case that it was the perfect time for the committee’s Republicans to take a leadership role in demonstrating the party’s commitment to reducing the deficit and to rein in spending.

Under McConnell’s approach, committee Republicans would make a unified statement urging some level of control on spending that was attainable. That way, Republicans said, they would have a substantive proposal that if enacted would help control the debt while also providing a talking point.

Initially, these sources said, McConnell ran into some resistance, particularly from the committee’s “Old Bulls” such as Bond and Cochran, who often view their work as being above the typical partisan fray.

Given their long-standing ability to work through differences on spending priorities with a relative minimum of acrimony, Republican appropriators were wary of upsetting the traditional relationship in a way that could disrupt their working relationship with Democrats not just this year but potentially for years to come.

Republicans “don’t risk that [relationship] lightly … [but] they couldn’t just vote these out in good conscience,” a GOP aide said. While taking a unified position is “very much out of character and practice” for members of the committee, the aide said, “this situation is different in the Members’ minds on a substantive level and on a political level as well.”

Republicans said that McConnell deserves the credit for pulling together the traditionally skittish Appropriations Republicans.

“I don’t think anybody but the leader could do that, so he gets all the credit,” one aide to a GOP appropriator said.

The Republican lawmaker agreed, arguing that the support of the Old Bulls was the linchpin to McConnell’s plan. “He couldn’t have done it without those guys,” the Republican said, adding that the agreement committee Republicans came up with strikes a balance between substantive and political considerations.

The letter is “a great way to create some separation, some contrast between us and Democrats … [and] to show we’re serious about deficits and spending,” the Republican lawmaker said.

“It’s very smart politics,” A GOP operative said. “Part of the beauty of this is that it is so simple … [and] it makes it more difficult for Democrats to get around this one” since McCaskill is an original sponsor.

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