War Over Spending Just Beginning in House

Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:59pm

The battle over the House budget resolution might be behind the chamber, but the war over its specifics is just beginning.

House appropriators this week begin taking up the first round of spending bills while six key committees will start outlining how they hope to offset the hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts scheduled to go into effect in January through the sequestration process.

House Republican leaders are crafting a memo to Members that will lay out how the committees hope to replace the defense cuts with a reconciliation process that asks committees to identify alternative cuts.

The first details have begun to emerge, portending a process full of political theater, with Republicans singling out President Barack Obama’s health care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and tort reform as areas ripe for savings.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who must find more than $50 billion in savings from within his committee’s jurisdiction, said Monday that he expects those cuts “to be bipartisan in nature” because “a lot of them are going to be things that originated in Simpson-Bowles,” shorthand for the president’s deficit-cutting commission.

The committee is looking to find much of the savings by recovering overpayments made by the health care law, aides said.

Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen said he would hear the Republican out on their suggestions. But he said cuts to the health care law or other Democratic priorities will not find traction in his party.

“I think that some of the proposals are going to be nonstarters,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Given the fact they’re taking a lopsided approach, it’s going to be very difficult to muster Democratic support.”

Van Hollen said the reconciliation process is a “charade” because while it was created to avoid restrictive Senate rules, in this case the Senate is not involved. Without getting specific, he suggested a solution that would tackle the defense sequester with both tax increases and cuts to programs.

But for the time being, a bipartisan solution does not look to be in the cards.

The Judiciary Committee must identify about $40 billion in savings and has announced it will start the process today with a hearing on changing the way damages can awarded.

The Financial Services Committee will follow with a Wednesday hearing taking aim at the Dodd-Frank Act. Among its suggestions are cutting a fund that is supposed to prevent bank bailouts and bringing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the authority of Congress, where it can cut the bureau’s budget.

The Agriculture, Oversight and Government Reform, and Energy and Commerce committees also have hearings ahead of them in which they must each identify tens of billions of dollars in savings.

All committees must report out their savings by the end of the month, and they will likely receive a vote on the floor.

But the Senate will probably not take up the House suggestions, so the process instead lays a marker for how Republicans would deal with the defense sequester. GOP aides are quick to point out that the House is acting while the Senate is not.

“We’ll be sending those bills to take care of sequestration to the Senate,” one GOP aide said. The public will see “if a Democratic Senate chooses to allow sequestration to happen, and so far, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] hasn’t come up with a solution.”

In the event that committees cannot pass their reconciliation cuts, the Rules Committee is expected to make in order a floor amendment that would include alternatives to sequestration.

The appropriations process looks to get heated this year, as well, a course predicted when House Republicans passed a budget that deviates from the Budget Control Act’s number of $1.047 trillion. The Senate has vowed to stick to that number, so it looks unlikely that any bills can pass both chambers. Already, Members have predicted that a continuing resolution will be necessary toward the end of the year.

Still, Republicans say they are hoping to craft bills that can gather some level of bipartisan support. They are starting small this week, with hearings in two House subcommittees whose bills generally deal with less controversial subjects — the Energy and Water Development and Commerce, Justice and Science subpanels.

Other bills that deal with defense, such as the Homeland Security or military construction and Veterans Affairs bills, stand a chance to pass, aides said.

But Democrats are still up in the air as to whether they can go along with any of the bills at all because the topline number will have to match up with the House-passed budget of $1.028 trillion for fiscal 2013, a number to which they object.

One Democratic leadership aide predicted that “this will be a huge fight, and Democrats will oppose.”

That’s not to mention that policy riders are almost certain to come into play later this year, when the bills reach the full committee. Any individual riders could further dissuade Democrats from giving their consent to appropriations bills. That became a problem last year, particularly for the bill dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency and another that covers Cuba spending policy.

More controversy could rear its head later in the process, when conservative Republicans are asked to vote on spending bills. Some are noted for voting against all appropriations bills, and if they do this year, appropriators will need Democratic votes to pass bills.