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Riders Are Key to Endgame Strategy

With little margin for error as the calendar winds down, Congressional leaders are looking to strike a delicate balance regarding policy riders attached to a year-end spending bill that must clear both chambers next week.

House and Senate Democrats hope to keep riders to a minimum, but there will be some concessions on both sides to ensure a package passes with bipartisan support, lawmakers said.

Congress must act before the Dec. 16 expiration date of the current continuing resolution.

Adding to the pressure, the House is working on a separate legislative package that is expected to include an extension of the payroll tax holiday, an extension of long-term unemployment insurance and legislation to avert a cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

“We’re continuing to talk to our Members” about the package, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said Wednesday after a Republican caucus meeting. “We talked to them last week. We got their input. We’re continuing to work on this, and we expect that before the week’s over, we’ll talk to our Members again. But I think it’s important for us to have these deliberations with our colleagues before we introduce a bill, and we’ll do it in just that way.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Wednesday warned that work might continue through next weekend.  

“While our goal is to complete all legislative business by Friday, Dec. 16, Members are advised to keep their schedules flexible into the weekend of [Dec. 16],” Cantor said. “Saturday and Sunday sessions are possible.”

Though appropriators remained vague on the specifics of the spending bill, they said the closed-door negotiations have centered on whittling dozens of riders to ameliorate both sides.

“We’ve got to thread that needle,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. The trick: including enough riders to draw Republican votes but not too many to drive away Democrats.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said Democrats have been working to keep the number of riders to a minimum.

“We’re trying to keep them out,” Inouye said, adding that the GOP was pushing in the other direction.

He stressed that issues are being negotiated and that neither side will get everything it wants.

A Senate GOP aide said the House has been a “difficult hurdle to clear,” so if they need some riders, “it can’t be overlooked.”

GOP aides said Senate Democrats were also seeking to get into the package riders such as language loosening abortion restrictions for nongovernmental organizations.

“The strategy is to develop two or three on each bill that we can honestly go to them and say, ‘We have to have these and we’re willing to give up on the others,’” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), an
appropriator, said.

Complicating matters for Republicans, though, is the fact that House Democrats will likely be needed to pass the package.

“Because we’ve been able to show that we can give support if appropriate, I think our hand has been strengthened in these negotiations,” House Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said.

Still, Democrats have indicated that while some riders are off the table — mainly those dealing with social issues and defunding health insurance and financial regulatory reform — they will support others.

“We’ve made it very clear, and they understand the kinds of riders that would be, in effect, just poking fingers in our eyes,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “We’ll have to look at them rider by rider, we’ll have to ask the subcommittee chairs what they think and we’ll have to review them.”

In particular, Dicks said an Environmental Protection Agency-related rider that would prevent regulation of some storm water discharges could be something to which Democrats acquiesce.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) — ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, which oversees the EPA — said Democrats might also accept reductions to the agency’s funding in exchange for dropping some of the “most egregious” riders, including one that would eliminate regulations of mountaintop removal mining.

“We may have to accept some moderate reduction in EPA funding — they’re really insistent on that,” he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said that while he thinks the negotiations will be fruitful, it is still possible his bill could be split off into a continuing resolution over EPA riders.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill could also suffer the same fate over riders that would defund health insurance reform, the signature legislative achievement of the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress. But Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, said he believes his bill will be in the package.

“I think we will be part of the package,” Rehberg said. “We’re working our way through it, and I have no reason to believe we won’t be successful. I have no reason to believe I won’t be able to bring something forward.”

Though they are still ironing out agreements on abortion and health care riders, Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government Chairwoman
Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) said a CR on her bill would be unlikely because, for instance, the General Services Administration would not have enough money to cover its leases.

Rep. José Serrano, that subcommittee’s ranking member, said he is re-litigating a rider tacked onto the April budget deal restricting the District of Columbia from spending its public funds on abortion programs.

“In the negotiations that we’re having, every time it’s my turn to speak, I say, ‘You cannot bring D.C. back 20 years,’” the New York Democrat said.

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