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Rosa DeLauro wins Appropriations gavel

Connecticut Democrat faces big challenges next year, from ongoing coronavirus relief efforts to debates over abortion and earmarks

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., right, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. at an appropriations subcommittee hearing on March 4, 2020.
Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., right, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. at an appropriations subcommittee hearing on March 4, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats on Thursday chose Rosa DeLauro as their next Appropriations chairwoman, capping off more than a year of behind-the-scenes campaigning in the three-way race.

The Connecticut Democrat and close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi will take over the panel in January following the retirement of chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y. 

Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, chairwoman of the Energy-Water subcommittee, and Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who leads the Military Construction-VA panel, competed for the role but didn’t receive the support needed.

Kaptur dropped out of the race and endorsed DeLauro just prior to the pivotal House Democratic Caucus vote. 

“Congresswoman DeLauro has assured me, if elected, that she is committed to working with our Great Lakes and Heartland region to ensure its place at the table in committee proceedings and in our efforts to get all of America back to good health and economic prosperity,” Kaptur said in a statement. “I know Rosa to be a Member who keeps her word.”

The vote was 148-79 in DeLauro’s favor, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

The full caucus vote ratifies the Steering and Policy Committee’s vote on Tuesday to recommend DeLauro for the Appropriations gavel. 

Kaptur had the most seniority on the panel, and Wasserman Schultz had raised the most money for the party. But in the end, the caucus chose DeLauro, who has a long record of support for progressive causes and a close relationship with Lowey as well as Pelosi dating back to their tenure serving together on the committee in the 1990s.

The three candidates aligned on several issues, including support for restoring earmarks, eliminating a federal prohibition on abortion funding, addressing disparities in federal funding for minority and disadvantaged communities and improving the Appropriations Committee’s member services.

DeLauro separated herself from the other candidates with a lengthy list of endorsements from colleagues in the House, labor unions and groups advocating programs for women and children.

She touted achievements such as consistently reaching bipartisan agreement on the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, showcasing her ability to keep government functioning on a particularly challenging set of issues. And she leaned on long-term friendships built during her three decades in the House.

Tough tasks ahead

DeLauro won’t have a slow start to her tenure as the next top Democrat on the spending panel.

Right off the bat, she’ll be a major player in the ongoing coronavirus relief efforts that President-elect Joe Biden has promised. Democrats are expected to put forth a substantial emergency spending package early next year, regardless of what happens in the lame-duck session on COVID-19 aid.

The panel DeLauro will take over in January will be substantially different than the one Lowey has presided over since she became the panel’s top Democrat in 2013.

The House is poised to bring back earmarks during the next session of Congress, a decision that will fundamentally change how invested rank-and-file lawmakers are in the annual appropriations process as well as the composition of spending bills.

The fiscal 2022 spending cycle will likely be the first time in a decade earmarks have officially appeared in House bills; however, some Republicans are already hinting that decision may pose hurdles for completing the process. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a veteran appropriator and onetime prolific earmarker in his own right, said this week he hadn’t “given any real thought” to whether to bring back the practice in the new Congress. “It’ll be interesting to see how the Republicans in the House respond to that,” McConnell told reporters.

DeLauro will also lead a debate among Democrats about whether to remove a provision that’s prevented the use of federal funds for abortions with limited exceptions for more than 40 years.

The Hyde amendment, first added to an appropriations bill in 1977 by Republican Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, has become increasingly unpopular among left-leaning Democrats. They say the provision unfairly impacts low-income women who are more likely to rely on federal assistance for health care.

DeLauro promised to champion its removal earlier this year, though she didn’t give a timeline for eliminating it from the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill.

“We are in a moment to reckon with the norm, with tradition and view it through the lens of racial justice,” DeLauro said in July.

GOP lawmakers are likely to oppose any changes or an outright removal of the provision and make it a central campaign issue as the party looks to take back the House in 2022.

And if Republicans maintain control of the Senate following two runoff contests in Georgia on Jan. 5 it’s unlikely the party would go along with a conferenced spending bill that removes the provision – making the House’s possible removal especially risky for moderate Democrats.   

In addition to policy changes, DeLauro will take over the appropriations panel just as the spending caps imposed by the 2011 deficit-reduction law (PL 112-25) end.

For the first time in a decade, the Budget committees will be in charge of setting the total discretionary spending level for the upcoming fiscal year in the annual budget resolution.

Once that number is agreed to, DeLauro will need to parcel it out among the 12 subcommittees — a process that brings back the old pre-caps debate over how much to allocate to defense vs. domestic and foreign aid programs.

If the Senate remains in Republican control, it’s possible the Budget committees set different topline spending levels, making the appropriations process more cumbersome than it’s been during the last 10 years when both panels started from the same total spending level.  

DeLauro will also be working with a Democratic president to fund and implement his legislative goals — a marked difference from the role Lowey’s had for the past four years as she sought to play defense against the Trump administration’s spending and policy priorities.

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