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House Democrats give leaders a pass on breaking 72-hour rule for spending deal

Few members, however, were willing to stake a position until seeing the bill

Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan seemed understanding of the trade-offs made to get to the spending deal but said he wanted to read the bill text first before deciding on his vote. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan seemed understanding of the trade-offs made to get to the spending deal but said he wanted to read the bill text first before deciding on his vote. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Most House Democrats are giving their leadership a pass for breaking a chamber rule that requires bill text to be released 72 hours before a vote so they can quickly move a funding package before Friday’s deadline to avert another government shutdown.

But many of the same Democrats also said Wednesday before the text of a seven-bill appropriations package was released that they couldn’t make a decision on how they’d vote until reading it — which they’d only have about 24 hours to do.

The House is expected to vote on the appropriations package sometime Thursday night after 6:30 p.m., according to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The bill text was not filed until after 6:30 p.m. the previous night.

Senators, who are going to vote on the appropriations package first, will have even less time to read the bill.

Hoyer told reporters that House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern is comfortable waiving the 72-hour rule because of the need to pass legislation by Friday.

“Obviously, this is an emergency. The government shuts down on Friday,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And not only that, but this is the completion of business that should have been done last year.”

McGovern said as much to Roll Call on Tuesday when confirming the plan to waive the 72-hour rule. The House officially did so Wednesday in passing a rule governing debate on an unrelated measure that also included a broader “martial law” provision providing the chamber with the authority to take up any fiscal 2019 appropriations measure the same day it is introduced. 

“Two things: One, this is an emergency. And two, this is last year’s business,” the Massachusetts Democrat said of making the exception. “And so we have to clean up [the Republicans’] mess. The Rules Committee is not going to be responsible for the government shutting down or not moving this expeditiously. We need to get this done as soon as it’s ready.”

Hoyer and McGovern are correct that Congress should have fully funded the government last year, and this package completing that work is four-and-a-half months late. The seven appropriations bills provide funding for fiscal 2019, which began Oct. 1.  The other five annual spending measures were signed into law before the fiscal year began. 

However, the late arrival of the deal does not in and of itself explain why Congress needs to rush to pass it. 

Also watch: Senate leaders praise border security deal

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Why no CR?

With the exception of the 35-day partial government shutdown, the departments covered by the seven unfunded bills were running on fiscal 2018 funding levels through a series of continuing resolutions Congress has passed since September. 

Congress could pass another short-term continuing resolution lasting a few days or weeks to give members time to review the bill before voting on it — as some Republicans pointed out.

“There’s a CR that we could do and give 10 days for people to read the bill,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. 

The North Carolina Republican then alluded to an infamous remark Speaker Nancy Pelosi made during debate over the 2010 health care law, saying, “If this does not codify — you have to vote on something before you know what’s in it — nothing does.”

What’s a Continuing Resolution?

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But there appears to be no appetite for another CR, despite appropriators having reached a deal to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year.

“What a short-term CR does, is, it places in doubt the continued operation of government between now and Sept. 30,” Hoyer said. “Federal employees right now are very anxious about making — seeing whether they’re going to be open on Saturday.”

Hoyer said it’s time for “certainty, ” for Congress to resolve the funding matter “without creating further anxiety” and a lack of confidence in the U.S. economy. “And that’s why we think we ought to move forward,” he said. 

Other Democratic leaders similarly explained away the breaking of the rule.

Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said “the spirit of the rules” is to ensure all House members can “participate meaningfully in the legislative process.” The New York Democrat said there were Republicans and Democrats represented on that conference committee that hammered out the final deal and those appropriators regularly reported back to the larger party caucuses on the progress throughout. 

“We trust and expect that members are sufficiently briefed in the context of this particular narrow circumstance where we’re trying to avoid another government shutdown,” Jeffries said. 

Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts added: “We do not want to put process over people in such an unusual and crisis situation.”

Rank-and-file agree

Rank-and-file Democrats seemed to agree with their leaders.

“These are unique circumstances, obviously exigent circumstances in terms of the need to make sure the government stays open,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, who serves as one of two freshman class representatives in leadership. 

The Colorado Democrat said this one situation was an exception to Democrats’ efforts to restore so-called regular order in the House. Neguse noted that committees have been holding hearings and markups on other bills before trying to bring them to the floor, such as the HR 1 government overhaul package and a bill to strengthen background checks for gun purchases.

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, one of the Democrats’ chief deputy whips, said “there’s a little bit of concern” about members not having enough time to read the bill. But the caucus has been able to rely on the conferees Wednesday to describe what’s involved in the deal as members awaited the bill text, he said. 

Kildee probably had the most honest reaction when asked why Congress doesn’t pass a short-term CR to give members more time.

“My own reaction is that this president is so erratic that a week could turn into another shutdown,” he said. “So I think we have to move, avoid this shutdown, put this behind us. If he’s even signaling ‘yes,’ just get it done.”

Questions about deal

While Democrats didn’t seem concerned about breaking their 72-hour rule, they had more questions when it came to the substance of the agreement. 

For example, members wanted to know what kind of restrictions would be placed on the $1.4 billion provided for 55 miles of physical barriers at the southern border. 

“The barriers are going to be an issue. I want to know where and what they look like,” Rep. Veronica Escobar said, noting she was trying to keep an open mind while awaiting details. The Texas Democrat represents the El Paso area where President Donald Trump held a campaign rally Monday night in part to continue his pitch for a border wall. 

For the most part, Democrats seemed convinced the barrier funding wouldn’t be used for a concrete wall or any structure remotely resembling what Trump has been pushing.

Watch: Democrat Mark Pocan hands out ‘missing’ fliers for FOIA request outside ICE headquarters

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“To me it’s pretty unequivocal, there’s no funding for a wall,” Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan said. The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair said the 90-some members of that group felt strongly that not one dollar be provided for a wall.

Pocan acknowledged that some progressives were opposed to any barrier funding and will likely vote against the bill. The appropriator seemed understanding of the trade-offs that were made to get to the deal but said he wanted to review the bill text before deciding how to vote.

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the other Progressive Caucus co-chair, also wanted to review the bill first. But she said she was leaning “no” because another matter that was important to progressives — lowering the number of beds available for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants. 

In fiscal 2018, Congress appropriated money for only 40,500 detention beds but the Trump administration ignored Congress and took that up to almost 49,000, Jayapal said.

“Now what we’ve done is, we’ve reduced that number over the next nine months but the average daily population … is still too high,” she said. “And in the end, unless we have a guarantee that they’re actually going to listen to what Congress does and our appropriated amount, we still have a president who’s using every tool at his disposal to do mass deportation.”

It’s not just the Democrats’ left flank that is having problems with the deal. Republican hard-liners, including Freedom Caucus members, are also balking at the agreement, in large part because Trump came up short on his wall funding request.

“We don’t have the leverage to effect this particular piece of legislation,” Meadows said of his group of roughly three-dozen conservatives. “That doesn’t mean we have to support it. I don’t. There is a slight chance I could if I see the text, and it has unbelievable wins, but based on my Democrat colleagues’ Cheshire Cat kind of look, I’m not optimistic that it’s going to be something that Republicans will rise up and call blessed.”

Leaders confident 

Despite the likelihood that members on the far ends of the party spectrums will vote against the deal, leaders of both parties seemed optimistic that it would easily pass the House with broad bipartisan support.

“I expect that there will be strong support in all of the ideological quarters of the House Democratic Caucus,” Jeffries said. 

Republican leaders, while cautioning that they wanted to see the final bill text to ensure there were no unexpected poison pills added, said they’d back the deal. They touted what they viewed as the GOP wins in the compromise, despite not getting anywhere close to the $5.7 billion they and Trump wanted for a border wall.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who mocked Democrats for “already” breaking their 72-hour rule, said if the bill text matches the agreement as it has been portrayed, he will support it. 

“I want to make sure … we’re giving the president the down payment he needs while he still has the tools to finish the job through because the Democrats will not allow it to go all the way,” the California Republican said.

Republican support is key because Democrats are unlikely to be able to pass the bill through the House without GOP help, as they could only afford to lose 18 votes and do so. But if Democrats are able to get 217 of their members to vote for the bill — the threshold needed to pass it if all members are present and voting (typically 218, but there are two vacant House seats) — that would be an impressive showing of unity by the new majority. 

“I don’t think they’ll get to 218,” predicted Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, a senior appropriator and House Rules ranking member. “But I think we’ll get a substantial bipartisan vote.”