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Big-Ticket Issues Get Short Shrift

A Congressman was arrested and a major government agency struggled through a partial shutdown last week, but those events barely registered as Members battled over increasing the debt ceiling.

“It’s tough in Washington, D.C., when you organize an event and other matters begin to take the oxygen out of the room,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who was arrested last week outside the White House after protesting the Obama administration’s deportation policies.

“You don’t think, ‘Let me go down there and get arrested,'” the Illinois Democrat added. “But sometimes you have to punch through.”

Thus explains the challenge other Members endured last week as they fought public policy battles that had the misfortune of not being about the debt or deficit. Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) took to the floor in the chamber to complain of a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, sparked by a legislative standoff with the House.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) bragged that a seventh spending bill was being debated on the floor, “which normally [would] be a story” but is currently a barely noticed matter, while Rep. Jim Moran held his own news conference last week to complain about the very same bill that Rogers was trying to celebrate.

“It didn’t get any coverage,” the Virginia Democrat complained of his news conference highlighting controversial provisions in the Interior and environment appropriations bill on the floor.

What’s more, Moran said, all of the focus on the debt limit was detracting from an equally worrisome prospect that “we’re going to go through another shutdown crisis” over funding the government in the next fiscal year.

At his sparsely attended news conference last week, Moran estimated there are “half a dozen appropriations bills that are not going to get passed” before the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year. Such a scenario might lead to another series of standoffs over a continuing resolution, which Washington went through earlier this year.

The massive Interior and environment appropriations bill is typically a hot-button measure that sparks heated debates about the Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas regulations and even animal protections. All those topics were debated on the floor last week and did draw some attention from interested groups. The chamber voted down amendments to strip funding from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Arts, and in a rare win for the minority, an amendment from Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) to fund the protections for newly declared endangered species passed on the floor with the help of 37 Republicans.

“There were a few little stories, but we didn’t get the attention we would have usually gotten,” said Dicks, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. “I’m not disappointed; we’ve just got to do these appropriations bills and get this debt ceiling fixed.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, normally an outspoken anti-earmark crusader when appropriations bills are being debated on the floor, said he’s instead been preoccupied by the debt limit debate. The Arizona Republican, who typically tries to shepherd several amendments to highlight what he deems wasteful spending during appropriations bill debates on the floor, was the recipient of a full-court leadership press last week that sought to persuade him to support Speaker John Boehner’s debt limit plan. When he announced his support for the Ohio Republican’s revised measure Friday, he acknowledged, “I’ve been thinking elsewhere.”

“There’s some things that are important and high-profile and have taken a back seat to this bigger debate,” said Flake, noting his own language in the Interior bill on uranium mining that has drawn fire from the Democratic side.

Even President Barack Obama’s bully pulpit couldn’t prevent him from being distracted from his own announcement for new automobile fuel efficiency standards Friday. The issue typically drives heated partisan rhetoric and revs up the interest groups.

But before making his announcement at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C., Obama made another live television address about the debt limit and encouraged constituents to call, write and tweet their Members of Congress on the pending issue.

“You can never in this place have all the focus on one issue you think is important,” Flake said in a phrase that seemed to apply to just about everyone last week. “It is what it is.”

Of course, the focus on the debt limit might have provided some cover to Members who didn’t necessarily need attention, notably embattled Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who announced last week that he would resign amid allegations that he forced an “unwanted sexual encounter” with a teenage woman. For Wu, the debt limit debate was a distraction from fresh allegations he faced back home. Asked about her colleague’s resignation last week, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) barely addressed the issue before declaring it “the least thing on my” list.

“Let me see how much lower I can fit,” she said, pointing to the ground. “He’s resigning from office. So, what we’re trying to do is save the world from the Republican budget. We’re trying to save life on this planet as we know it today. And I’ve said what I’m going to say about that; he’s resigned.”

Of course, Wu did say he would resign as soon as the debt limit debate was over. So it’s anyone’s guess when he’ll really be leaving the Capitol complex.

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