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Mikulski Challenged by Irregular Order on Spending

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski faces tough hurdles in her quest to return to “regular order” for handling her committee’s dozen annual spending bills.

The Maryland Democrat has to persuade leaders within her own party to give floor time for spending bills that could become vehicles for Republicans to bring up potentially controversial amendments and force some of her Democratic colleagues to take tough votes.

But Mikulski also will have to acquaint many senators on both sides of the aisle with what regular order means. Roughly half of the members of the Senate joined after 2005, the last year Congress finished annual appropriations without resorting to an omnibus.

Mikulski argues that a return to allowing greater participation in developing spending bills could result in a more efficient government. That would work better than the blunt across-the-board cuts that conservatives, limited greatly in other viable opportunities to cut spending, have put forward in both chambers in recent weeks.

“Let’s get back to regular order,” Mikulski said Jan. 28 as she argued on the floor against an amendment from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who sought to make an across-the-board cut to compensate for the Superstorm Sandy supplemental bill (HR 152). “Let’s not be kind of doing cuts du jour, cuts on the fly.”

Senate Democratic leaders have spoken often of their support for the idea of bringing spending bills to the floor one by one, with Charles E. Schumer of New York saying last month he expected a recent bipartisan agreement on the chamber’s rules to help in this cause.

But political reality stands in the way, said Peter C. Hanson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver who is working on a book, “Too Weak to Govern: Omnibus Bills, Agenda Control and Weak Senate Majorities.”

The more spending bills that reach the floor, the more chances that Republicans have to bring up thorny amendments and so put Democrats in swing states to the test.

“The regular order is a double-edged sword for the majority. On the one hand, it gives members a broad opportunity to participate in legislating,” said Hanson, an aide in the 1990s to then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “On the other, it gives the minority the opportunity to make mischief. Creating omnibus bills keeps the trains running but shuts many members out of the process.”

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