WASHINGTON — Top U.S. senators are hailing March’s government shutdown-averting bill as evidence Congress soon will return to passing annual appropriations bills. But in an era defined by partisanship, some rank-and-file lawmakers aren’t so sure.
Republican and Democratic leaders see both chambers’ ability to agree on the same version of a $982 billion governmentwide spending bill, which included a $518.1 billion Pentagon funding measure, as a sign things soon would return to normal on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think ... regular order is doomed to failure,” the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told Defense News. “I think we need more of it.”
Pulling off a return to what’s known on Capitol Hill as “regular order” depends mostly on the Democratic-run Senate, which has struggled in recent years to pass most appropriations bills and budget resolutions. During that span, the Republican-controlled House has consistently approved such measures.
The wonky phrase refers to the practice of moving agency appropriations bills out of committee and then bringing them to a vote on the House and Senate floor.
Senate Appropriations Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others didn’t get the optimistic memo.
“You had two [continuing resolution] amendments supported by large groups of senators, but you cannot vote on ’em,” Graham, an Appropriations Defense subcommittee member, told Defense News. “I don’t know what that says — other than this place is screwed up.”
Asked if the rocky road to passing the CR foretells trouble for efforts to move Appropriations Committee-approved spending legislation to the Senate floor for debate and a final vote, Cornyn replied: “No.”
Yet, Cornyn then offered a critique of the Senate’s Democratic agenda, describing how once spending bills hit the floor, the minority largely is subject to the majority’s amendment and debate whims.
“What made this hard was Sen. Reid unnecessarily limited the number of amendments that people could offer,” Cornyn said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “That seemed awfully arbitrary and caused a lot of turbulence on our side that seemed completely unnecessary.”
The GOP Whip said that to re-establish the regular process of moving appropriations bills, Reid “needs to have a lighter touch when it comes to moving the bill along.”
Cornyn offered advice for the majority leader: “You let the Senate work its will.”
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., objected several times to motions by Reid to move toward a final vote on the CR.
“I think it’s obviously really important that we get back to regular order,” Ayotte said late last month. “The majority leader [Reid] was talking about getting back to regular order, but this has been the opposite.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Ayotte said.
She felt she had ample bipartisan support for an amendment to strip from the governmentwide spending bill funds for the controversial Medium Extended Air Defense System, a U.S.-Germany-Italy missile defense program lawmakers say is too technically flawed and unrealistic.
(Ayotte got her vote on the amendment a few days later during debate on the Senate’s nonbinding 2014 budget resolution. It received 94 votes. There are 100 senators.)
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member, a leading GOP voice on fiscal and budgetary matters, last month branded Reid a “one-man rules committee,” a jab that referenced the House panel that decides floor procedures for most bills in the lower chamber.
“What we want to do is not ... have the input of both sides in the bill, other than in committee,” Coburn said during a passionate March 20 floor speech that took more than a few shots at Reid and his fellow senators.
“What we want is a fixed outcome,” Coburn said. “What’s happening to America today is we’re focused inwardly on the politics … because it’s all about the next election.”
What’s more, Senate leaders’ optimism at the end of the often-contentious CR process was preceded by their visible frustration at rank-and-file members of both parties.
On the evening of March 14, for instance, a clearly agitated Reid took to the Senate floor and bashed senators from both parties, deeming many members of the chamber “unmanageable.” Too many lawmakers were being stubborn, unwilling to compromise on amendments to the CR, he said.
House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have thrown their support behind both chambers returning to regular order.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Ranking Member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., cast the Senate’s ability to pass their CR — essentially a mini-omnibus that featured the full-year DoD funding bill and a handful of others — as a sign regular order soon would return in the upper chamber.
Speaking on the Senate floor March 20, just before the mini-omnibus passed, Mikulski said the chamber had pulled off “a great thing.” Several days earlier, Shelby said bringing the measure to the floor with the agency spending bills attached left him hopeful “that we can return to the regular order of producing budgets and appropriations bills to avoid the threat of a [government] shutdown in the future.”
Reid talked openly on the Senate floor about the CR process foreshadowing a return to acting on spending bills. At one point, Reid declared bluntly: “We have to do appropriations bills.”
Rank-and-file members of his Democratic caucus were more upbeat than their Republican colleagues.
“Once we get a budget, we’ll be one step closer to regular order,” Senate Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News on March 21, two days before the Senate passed its budget resolution.
“So that’s the first step.”
Reed noted Mikulski has vowed to move spending bills out of her Appropriations Committee and onto the floor. “Let me put it this way,” he said with a grin: “She’s committed to doing that, and she’s somebody that has a strong will.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the Senate’s ability to pass the 2014 budget resolution she crafted, the first time it has done so in four years, means “we’re telling the appropriators in a timely manner … that they can write next year’s [spending] bills so we won’t be doing [a CR] at the last minute.”
Murray said moving bills through the traditional subcommittee markup-full committee markup-floor debate process should alleviate the concerns of Ayotte and other GOP senators.
“If we have the bills coming out in regular order, we won’t be piled on [to a CR] with a short amount of time to pass a bill,” she said.
Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, is optimistic about the Senate joining the House in again passing annual spending bills.
“I think you’ll see a move toward something like a more normal thing. The key, for the Defense Department, is going to be when the [Obama] administration presents a 2014 budget that will not have the sequester cuts for the next few years,” Korb said, referring to plans for the White House’s 2014 budget plan as first reported by Defense News.
“Everyone will be able to say they won” because conservative budget hawks have all but secured sequestration’s first batch of cuts to the Pentagon budget: $46 billion already being trimmed from its 2013 allotment.
“Everyone has made their point,” Korb said, “so you can get back to the normal process on spending bills.”