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Budget Conference at Last? Not So Fast, Says Pelosi

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On Thursday morning, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., cited a “good faith effort” by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as new motivation for proceeding to conference on the budget.

By Thursday afternoon, Pelosi had reminded GOP colleagues that she launched that effort under certain conditions, which, if unmet, could prompt her to renege.

The California Democrat had promised, days earlier, to refrain from offering Democratic “motions to instruct” any budget conferees. A motion to instruct is a procedural maneuver that allows lawmakers to force politically charged votes on a variety of issues relating to bills that are in conference.

“I said we would be willing, for the first time in history, for the minority to surrender our prerogative,” said Pelosi at her Thursday press conference. “Fear no more, Mr. Speaker, that your members will be voting for some of our initiatives. Fear no more that it would call into the public’s attention some things that need to be brought to the public’s attention. We’re not going down that path.

“But it was twofold,” she said: In exchange for forfeiting the right to offer motions to instruct, House Republicans would have to bring to the floor a “clean” short-term continuing resolution to reopen the government.

House Republican leadership’s current plan is to pass, in the days ahead, a clean six-week extension of the debt ceiling, conditioned upon an agreement that lawmakers would use that time to go to conference to merge the House and Senate fiscal 2014 budgets and all of the other outstanding fiscal issues.

It’s not certain that the GOP is prepared to couple that short-term extension with a short-term CR.

“That’s the conversation we’re going to have with the president today,” Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters on Thursday morning in advance of House Republicans’ visit to the White House in the afternoon. “I don’t want to put anything on the table, I don’t want to take anything off the table, that’s why we want to have this conversation.”

A House Republican aide suggested that it wouldn’t bode well for budget negotiations if Pelosi brought back the political weapon of the motion to instruct: “Republicans want to find common ground to reach a budget agreement. If Leader Pelosi believes that’s a worthy goal, she should honor her commitment to keep politically-charged MTIs off the floor.”

House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was dubious on Thursday that Democrats’ six-month struggle to go to conference with Republicans on the budget was just about the fear of a little-known procedural move.

“Let’s be really clear: That has been a smokescreen,” Van Hollen told reporters leaving Pelosi’s afternoon press conference. “The reason we didn’t go to conference earlier in the year is because Republicans wanted to run out the clock and have the country face the government shutdown and debt ceiling fight to try and extract, in an emergency situation, what they could not get at the negotiating table.”

He continued, “They also knew if that they go to conference, you have to reach a reasonable compromise, which the speaker is incapable of selling to his own caucus. So that’s why they waited.”

Boehner’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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