Angered by Democratic success in the recent budget deal, Republican aim for policy wins in year-end spending package.
Republicans are threatening to jam Democrats with controversial policy riders in December on everything from Dodd-Frank rollbacks to curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers, hoping to get revenge on a minority that’s spent the past week gloating over a bipartisan budget deal.
With Congress facing a Dec. 11 deadline to pass a year-end spending bill, the drama will focus on GOP attempts to slip significant policy changes into the omnibus package at the eleventh hour and force congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama to swallow them. Republicans are looking past deal-breakers like defunding Planned Parenthood or blocking Obama’s immigration actions, shifting instead to more granular policies they think Democrats could be forced to accept.
“Democrats insisting that there not be policy riders is … a big mistake,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “There’s never been an omnibus bill that didn’t have policy riders. This bill will have policy riders in it, and I think it’s only a process of seeing how many and how far they go.”
The GOP won’t get everything it wants. But the Republican strategy could still pay off if they can persuade reluctant Democrats that a bipartisan deal on spending riders is far superior to an all-out war over a government shutdown or a stopgap funding bill that upends last week’s budget deal.
“It’s a negotiation,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. “The Democrats are going to have things they want, and we’re going to have things we want.”
Here’s what the Republican wish list includes: block Waters of the United States regulations that some Democratic moderates also oppose; overwrite a proposed fiduciary rule that would make brokers legally liable for the investment advice they give to customers; kill the EPA’s clean power plan, which Republicans fear will hurt home-state coal companies; and continue to chip away at Obamacare.
Though GOP leaders are aiming at some revisions that have bipartisan support, Democrats are already taking a hard line. Leaders insist they will reject riders that would not pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold on their own.
But Republicans reason that Democrats may be forced to accept things they don’t like: Last year’s spending bill loosened rules for financial trading established by Dodd-Frank, sparking a revolt on the left led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But most Democrats ultimately accepted that package, and they are even more likely to do the same this year because their votes will be needed to pass the omnibus amid stronger GOP resistance.
The spending bill is still in its early stages, but there are signs of movement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid privately met on Tuesday to begin the year-end discussions, though Reid said on Wednesday that no progress had been made and that McConnell has not yet shown him his cards. Leaders will try to keep the negotiations secret until an agreement is forged, likely giving their members a “take-it-or-leave-it” vote days before the Dec. 11 deadline.
Democratic leaders set out to end sequestration and raise federal spending equally between defense and domestic spending this year as conditions of any budget deal, and they largely got what they wanted. But they could not get McConnell (R-Ky.) to agree to put policy fights behind lawmakers until the new year, and freshly installed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is eager to test how far he can push the power of the purse.
Now Democrats are closing ranks, hoping to convince Republicans that they can’t be counted on to carry the omnibus across the finish line if the GOP is going to load up the spending bill. The flip side, of course, is it may be difficult for Democrats to vote against a sweeping bipartisan spending deal over a relatively small revision to financial or environmental regulations.
“We’ve agreed in no uncertain terms, the president … and [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi and I and all of our troops are going to hang together. We’re not going to have these ideological riders. We’re just not going to do it,” Reid said in an interview with POLITICO late last week.
There’s a large universe of potential riders to work from: In the 12 funding bills passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee this year, provisions barring funding from specific government programs or initiatives were included 569 times, and eight of those measures passed the committee with healthy majorities.
In 2014, under a Democratic Senate and GOP House, the two parties eventually settled on a package that included rollbacks of Dodd-Frank reforms that brought a fuming Warren to the Senate floor to exclaim: “Enough is enough.” But the two parties also agreed to relax fundraising rules for national party committees while gutting the District of Columbia’s recreational marijuana law, a provision sought by social conservatives and reluctantly agreed to by congressional Democrats.
This time around Republicans control the Senate for the first time in eight years and are eager to score a win after two-thirds of the GOP rank and file rejected last month’s bipartisan budget deal. Conservatives are already trying to push McConnell and Ryan to take a harder line than they are likely to ultimately achieve.
“It is entirely understandable that Democrats are only saying they will accept only complete and total surrender from Republicans, because over and over again that’s what Republican leadership has given them,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in an interview. “That’s not what we were elected to do. We can’t get everything, but Republican leadership’s position to date has been to get nothing.”
“Our team needs to do a much better job of defending the power of Congress to fund or not fund the programs as it deems appropriate,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
On some riders, Democrats could be tempted to side with Republicans to hamstring the Obama administration on policy measures that have bipartisan opposition. One ripe target is the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule — nearly 100 House Democrats wrote to Labor Secretary Tom Perez in September calling for revisions to the pending regulation.
Meanwhile, 57 senators — including four Democrats — voted earlier this week to push forward legislation targeting the controversial Waters of the United States rule, which would expand the EPA’s capacity to regulate waterways. One Democratic supporter, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, did not rule out supporting such a provision on the spending bill in an interview Wednesday.
“I’m looking at any way we can get certainty for farmers and push back against this,” she said.
Senate Republicans note that many of their proposed riders are focused on halting unilateral actions from the Obama administration that are vehemently opposed by the GOP-led Congress. Broadening their majority in the House and seizing control of the Senate in 2014 gives Republicans more leverage in negotiations, they argue.
“It’s not the Congress trying to go back and undo longstanding federal commitments,” said Blunt, who leads the panel overseeing funding for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. “It’s the Congress saying, let’s slow down and not rush to things that clearly a majority of people are not for.”
But doing so has backfired. Republicans lost a war to block Obama’s executive actions through a must-pass spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that nearly led to a funding lapse for the agency.
Meanwhile, Democrats have blockaded all appropriations bills — a pattern that’s expected to continue on Thursday with another try on the defense funding measure — so Republicans argue it is unfair for the minority to make sweeping demands on riders.
“For them to come back and say, ‘We don’t want to do anything on here that’s going to make any kind of a statement’ I think is pretty bold on their part,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “They won’t even let us put them up to the floor to have it debated and amended and discussed.”