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Cole secures Appropriations gavel ahead of fraught budget cycle

Challenges include tamping down unrest on the right, with lawmakers upset over last month's $1.2 trillion package

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has become the new chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He will give up his chairmanship of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Rules Committee.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has become the new chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He will give up his chairmanship of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Rules Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Tom Cole secured the House Republican Conference’s backing Wednesday morning to become the next Appropriations Committee chairman, elevating the 11th-term Oklahoma lawmaker to one of Capitol Hill’s most influential — and toughest — positions.

Cole, who ran unopposed, received unanimous support Tuesday night from the House GOP Steering Committee, which doles out panel assignments. That decision set the stage for the full conference vote Wednesday. The process was drama-free after Cole’s only potential competitor, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., announced Tuesday he would not make a bid for the gavel.

Cole has vowed to get the Appropriations Committee right to work on fiscal 2025 funding, which is getting a late start after this year’s spending bills weren’t finalized until last month.

After addressing committee staffing and the necessary rearrangement of cardinals, as subcommittee chairs are known — Cole is vacating his Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee gavel — the next step is working with leadership to set a topline, Cole said.

While last year’s debt limit suspension law set basic appropriations caps for this year, a big chunk of the debate centered on “side deals” to boost nondefense funds through creative accounting, which Cole said could see some renewed discussion.

“I don’t think it’s going to take forever, because we do have [the debt limit law] as a general guideline, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sniping and negotiating,” he said. “Our job is once we get a topline, to start producing bills.”

Popular with both wings

Cole is a congenial and widely-popular member who secured the support of nearly all the other cardinals after Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, announced last month she would be leaving the position early.  Only Aderholt and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., didn’t publicly endorsed Cole.

The Steering Committee leans toward the establishment wing of the party and voted overwhelmingly for the $1.2 trillion compromise fiscal 2024 package that Cole supported. Aderholt opposed that measure, as he was upset about earmarks Senate Democrats included supporting the LGBTQ community and hospitals that perform abortions. 

But after the Steering Committee ignored Aderholt’s request to delay the process, it became clear there would be no stopping Cole. 

Aderholt, the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, pushed for changes to the appropriations process including more input for authorizers and universal agreement on earmarks among the four appropriations subcommittee leaders in a Roll Call op-ed published this week.

Aderholt said Tuesday while he thinks Cole will do a great job, he has “a lot of frustration” with how the last process went, and said he has been in touch with Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., about his ideas. 

“I just want to be an agent of change, to make some real reforms,” he said. 

Many members of the Republican conference were upset with where the final fiscal 2024 bills landed, and a majority of the conference voted against the $1.2 trillion package. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., floated a potential motion to oust Johnson following that vote. 

House Freedom Caucus member Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who opposed that measure, nonetheless backed Cole during the Steering Committee vote.

“My issues with the appropriations process stem a lot deeper than whoever [is] the chair of Appropriations,” Donalds said. “I don’t really think it’s really indicative of any one person, I think it’s the mindset of this town overall, the mindset of leadership both in the House and the Senate overall.” 

This race shaped up way differently than the five-way scramble the last time the position was open, when former chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., retired. 

Granger prevailed over a field that included Aderholt and Cole, as well as Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who dropped out of the race after Republicans lost the midterm elections and it became a race for ranking member. 

But that election featured nearly a year of jockeying as Frelinghuysen announced in January that he would not be running for reelection, and the conference selected the new ranking member in November. 

Granger’s announcement last November that she would not run for reelection kick-started speculation about who would replace her, with both Cole and Aderholt indicating interest. But her decision to step aside early condensed the timeline, and Cole quickly established himself as an odds-on favorite. 

‘Hell of a lot better’

Cole, 74, represents a south-central Oklahoma district and has served in high-profile roles in the conference and on the Appropriations Committee. He is the first Appropriations Committee chairman from Oklahoma. 

“One of my friends called and said, ‘We’ve had a speaker, they’re not worth very much. It’s a hell of a lot better to have an [Appropriations] chair,'” he said.  

Rep. Carl B. Albert, D-Okla., who died in 2000, served as speaker from 1971 through 1977.

Cole said while Oklahoma is a conservative state in line with the House Republican conference, Oklahomans understand the importance of key federal missions. He said his district has the 16th-largest number of federal employees.

Among the federal programs and facilities his constituents support include the University of Oklahoma’s National Weather Center; EPA’s Kerr Environmental Research Center in Ada that studies contaminants in soil and groundwater; and programs that support Native Americans, including the Indian Health Service. 

Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the longest-serving Native American lawmaker.

He’s faced some tough challenges before during his time on Capitol Hill.

Cole led the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2008 cycle, in which Republicans lost 21 seats. This Congress, Cole has served as the Rules Committee chairman, a difficult role with House Republicans willing to vote against rules on the floor as a form of protest. 

One of his first logistical tasks as chairman will be to sort out the full lineup of subcommittee chairs.

Granger will not serve as a subcommittee chairwoman, which will allow Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., to become a cardinal, probably at Legislative Branch.

Arkansas’ Steve Womack is considered the most likely candidate to move into the Transportation-HUD role, which would open the Financial Services job. 

Current Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Nev., will likely move into a more high profile position, either Financial Services or Homeland Security if Homeland Security appropriations cardinal David Joyce, R-Ohio, wants the Financial Services role. 

Cole says he will focus on getting bills out of committee, prioritizing the Defense, Military Construction-VA and Homeland Security measures.

“Give us a topline number … and we will start moving bills that reflect Republican priorities,” Cole said last week. “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 also predicted that Congress will end up passing 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 which time the party that wins the elections will decide how to proceed. 

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