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How the Omnibus Became a Democratic Wish List

Pelosi, Schumer maximized leverage of the minority, and their votes

Sen. Patrick Leahy, right, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, said Democrats and Republicans were able to craft a bipartisan spending plan to fund the government without too much influence from the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Patrick Leahy, right, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, said Democrats and Republicans were able to craft a bipartisan spending plan to fund the government without too much influence from the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy has been an appropriator for decades.

But the Vermont Democrat said Monday that for the first time in as long as he could remember, he did not hear from the White House while working to craft an omnibus bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. 

Keeping President Donald Trump and his administration away from the nitty-gritty of the deal was, to Democrats, significant in getting to an agreement that includes all 11 of the remaining spending bills. And it was the House and Senate Appropriations Committee members and their staffs who did most of the work.

“The major win is that key members of both parties in both bodies know if we really want this to work, do it the old-fashioned way,” Leahy said. “A lot of work, a lot less rhetoric, but you get somewhere.”

“There are a lot of Republicans who wanted increased funding for [the National Institutes of Health]. There were a lot of Republicans who wanted increased funding for transportation and education,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said. “I spoke to seven or eight Republicans who told me they were against the [U.S.-Mexico border wall.] So, we [knew] that we’d have leverage there.”

The New York Democrat, taking a bit of a victory lap, said he found unity among his caucus in opposition to the wall, in part because rural-state Democrats had discovered Mexico was responding to the threats and rhetoric from Trump by not buying as many crops from the United States.

Something for everyone

The package does include a substantial increase in funding for other forms of border security, as Republicans were quick to highlight.

“This legislation will allow us to substantially strengthen the border. It contains the largest increase in border-security resources in a decade, allowing us to address high-priority security needs, crack down on illegal border crossings, and strengthen the border with everything from upgraded physical infrastructure to high-tech biometric and surveillance technology,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Republicans who spoke up in support of the omnibus deal generally focused on their work to increase spending for either national security or key domestic priorities such as medical research.

Sen. Roy Blunt, who chairs the subcommittee that funds Health and Human Services, pointed to the $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health.

“The investments we make in NIH research will not only save lives, they’ll lead to new frontiers in drug and device development that are critical for reducing health care costs, growing our economy, and maintaining America’s competitive edge in innovation,” the Missouri Republican said in a statement. “I’ll continue working to ensure NIH has the resources it needs to give hope to more families battling cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic diseases.”

GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana highlighted the agreement’s language providing funds to help with disaster recovery.

“Louisiana’s state and federal officials have worked together as a team to make sure Louisiana families have the resources they need to recover, rebuild and prosper,” Cassidy said.

And like Democrats from coal country, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia touted the deal as a victory for her state, in part because of the permanent solution for health care for coal miners.

“It will also deliver essential funds for flood relief, increase resources to help combat the opioid epidemic, provide more support for our troops and national security efforts, and improve rural development,” Capito said. “These are just a few examples of how this government funding bill will help keep West Virginians healthy and safe, and empower us to grow and improve our economy and our communities.”

Increased Democratic clout

A House Democratic leadership aide pointed to victories that went even beyond keeping out potentially toxic policy provisions, with additional spending that the aide said came into the measure fairly late in the process.

That list included additional disaster relief and emergency transportation and infrastructure spending, as well as aid for health care needs in Puerto Rico, which was a priority of numerous Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“The omnibus includes vital funds to stabilize Puerto Rico’s underfunded Medicaid program, which threatened so many of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico,” the California Democrat wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to members of her caucus.

Pelosi and Schumer were speaking from the same script both publicly and privately, increasing the clout of the Democrats whose votes will be needed to pass the final deal.

Speaking with reporters, Schumer claimed a messaging victory in making sure that responsibility for any potential government shutdown would fall at the feet of the GOP.

“That became the general consensus, and that gave us real leverage even though we were in the minority to get things done,” Schumer said.

And the Senate minority leader did not dismiss the idea that the bill was close to a complete win.

“Are there a few places? Sure, but overwhelmingly, we were very pleased with the outcome on issue after issue,” Schumer said. “I would not say there’s a major loss in here.”

Appearing with Schumer on Monday afternoon, Leahy said the way Democrats “were able to knock out 160 poison pill riders — 160 — in [the GOP’s] proposal demonstrates that, at least among the grown-ups in both parties, in both bodies, they wanted to get down to doing it the way we are supposed to.”

But a senior Republican aide said that despite Schumer’s insistence, the rider debate is less significant with Trump in the White House given that resolutions under the Congressional Review Act have already stopped some Obama-era regulations, and conservatives are able to take other administrative steps to try to roll back more of them.

To that point, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday he has “every expectation” that Trump will sign the compromise omnibus spending measure, but said he would wait until the president has seen it to say so definitively.

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