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Cole: No time to waste electing new House Appropriations chair

Oklahoma Republican rejects call to delay vote, says it's already late in the budget process

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., is seen outside a House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Dec. 5, 2023.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., is seen outside a House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Dec. 5, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Tom Cole wants to strike while the iron is hot and keep next week’s scheduled vote on track to fill the vacant House Appropriations chairman position, arguing there’s no time to waste as lawmakers are already behind schedule on next year’s spending bills. 

Cole’s potential rival for the job, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., sent a letter to colleagues Wednesday seeking to delay the vote, which the Steering Committee is set to hold Tuesday with ratification by the full Republican Conference the following day. Aderholt said the appropriations process is broken and the conference must discuss changes before picking a new chairman. 

“We don’t have a lot of time to delay. We’re already way behind the [fiscal 2025] timelines, I would argue, let’s just have the election now,” Cole, R-Okla., said in an interview Wednesday. “Whoever wins, wins. And let’s let them get down to business.” 

Later on Wednesday, a source familiar with the discussions said the vote wouldn’t be delayed and would take place as currently scheduled next week.

Cole said if he were to get the nod, he would work with subcommittee chairs, known as cardinals, to get the chamber’s 12 appropriations bills written and reported out of committee as quickly as possible this spring and summer. The committee needs a chairman now to allow that to happen, he said. 

“I’m going to be pretty relentless in pushing my cardinals to get the work done,” Cole said. 

Cole, the current Transportation-HUD appropriations chairman, has lined up the support of all of the other cardinals save Aderholt, who leads the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., a House Freedom Caucus member.

[Cole considered early favorite to win House Appropriations gavel]

Cole’s vote for the massive $1.2 trillion final fiscal 2024 appropriations package last month also aligns him more with the GOP Steering Committee than Aderholt’s vote against the package. But the conference as a whole narrowly tilted against the bill, with 101 Republicans backing it to 112 GOP lawmakers opposed.

While Aderholt said in his Wednesday letter that the current appropriations process is “fundamentally flawed” and is aligning himself with the right wing of the conference, Cole is more closely aligned with leadership. 

Fiscal 2025 priorities

House Republicans will face an uphill battle in passing partisan fiscal 2025 bills, with a slim majority and a rowdy conference that has repeatedly shown a willingness to vote against the party’s priorities. 

Cole said he would be focused on getting the bills out of committee and would let House leaders make decisions on floor time. 

“Give us a topline number … and we will start moving bills that reflect Republican priorities,” Cole said. “We need to get them through our committee expeditiously. At that point, it’s up to the majority leader and whip what they are willing to put on the floor, what they think they can pass.” 

Cole said House appropriators will be prepared to write their bills to whatever topline spending level leadership and the Budget Committee set. But he said appropriators expected the level to be around the spending caps set in last year’s fiscal debt limit law, which allow for roughly 1 percent growth in fiscal 2025.

As chairman, Cole said House Republicans would prioritize the Defense, Military Construction-VA and Homeland Security bills in setting subcommittee allocations. 

“Those people would probably do a little better, in those three committees, and other people will do a little worse,” he said. 

Cole predicted that Congress will pass a stopgap spending measure at the end of this fiscal year in September that will continue current spending levels until after the November elections. 

At that time, the elections’ winners will decide whether they want to wrap up the process in the lame duck session or kick remaining decisions to the next Congress. Cole said he believes final fiscal 2025 appropriations should be wrapped up in the lame duck session. 

House Republicans will also review their rules regarding earmarks if he gets the job, Cole said. House Republicans installed a new rule barring earmarks in the Labor-HHS-Education, Financial Services and Defense bills for the fiscal 2024 process.

Senate appropriators allowed earmarks into their versions of the Labor-HHS-Education and Financial Services bills, however. The former proved particularly popular among lawmakers — senators inserted more than 1,000 projects worth over $1.4 billion into the final package’s Labor-HHS-Education title.

The restriction on Labor-HHS-Education earmarks put the House in a “difficult spot” when it came to negotiating on earmarks with the Senate, Cole said, as they had “nothing to trade back and forth.” 

However, he said adding Labor-HHS-Education earmarks back for the House this year is unlikely as it is already getting late in the fiscal 2025 process. Cole said he would talk to leadership about reinstating Labor-HHS-Education earmarks and the decision rests with them. 

Overall, Cole said earmarks are popular in the conference and he did not expect any major changes for fiscal 2025. 

Cole would be leaving his current role as House Rules Committee chairman if he is selected to lead Appropriations, he said. Under conference rules, Cole would have to seek a waiver if he wanted to remain in the position, something he isn’t interested in.

“You can’t possibly do both of those jobs,” Cole said.

Unlike most other committee chairmanships, which are chosen by the GOP Steering Committee, the chairman of the Rules Committee and the committee’s members are appointed by the speaker.

Possible candidates to replace Cole at Rules include the panel’s current vice chairman, Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, who is retiring after this Congress. GOP Chief Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., is next in line after Burgess. In theory it could be anyone Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., decides is a good fit to replace Cole, however.

Three GOP lawmakers who’ve opposed leadership priorities also sit on Rules: Chip Roy of Texas, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. They’ve been among the chief obstacles to passing party-line legislation given their ability to keep rules for floor debate from being adopted.

Ukraine aid, bridge funding

House appropriators are plowing ahead with subcommittee hearings on President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2025 budget next week while the panel’s leadership gets sorted out.

But ahead of the regular appropriations process, the House has some emergency spending measures that could soon be on the docket, including war-related funding for Ukraine and Israel, money to repair Baltimore’s collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge and more.

Cole said a decision on how to handle the foreign aid supplemental is up to Johnson, who’s considering a range of options to make it more palatable for his members. They include repealing an Energy Department approval requirement for certain exports of liquefied natural gas; turning Ukraine economic aid into a loan; and legislation that would use seized Russian assets to cover part of the cost. 

Cole said he is a strong supporter of additional Ukraine aid.

“Sooner or later, aid will be voted, because frankly, a substantial majority of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate wants to do it,” Cole said. “It’s just a question of coming to the right amount, the right format, what have you.” 

Cole said it is too early to tell if Key Bridge funding will be combined with the war supplemental package, a decision he said was up to GOP leaders.

Early estimates of total cost to rebuild the bridge total $2 billion, and Biden has promised that the federal government would cover the whole cost.

Cole said getting the cost estimate correct is more important than moving quickly to appropriate that funding. 

“My advice to [the administration] and anybody in Maryland is, take your time,” he said. “The biggest mistakes that tend to happen in these things are people submitting damage estimates too soon that are too low.” 

Federal funding is currently flowing to Maryland for the debris removal, Cole said, and highway repair funding from the Transportation Department is also already available. 

“We’re not in a hurry here, because everything that needs to be done, we have both the authority and the funds to do right now, and that’s happening,” Cole said. 

Cole said he spoke with Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and said he expected some members to travel to Baltimore to review the damage.

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