House Republicans pull spending measure, focus on bills to embarrass White House

Ed O'Keefe joins Chris Cillizza and Jackie Kucinich from Capitol Hill to talk about GOP bills aimed at the IRS scandal and Obamacare. (The Washington Post)

House Republicans were unable Wednesday to advance the first measure to fully implement their vision for deep automatic spending cuts in 2014, abruptly pulling a bill that proposed to reduce federal transportation and housing funding by more than $4 billion.

House leaders said they had merely run out of time before Congress’s August recess, scheduled to begin Friday. But the top House appropriator said the measure lacked the votes to pass and fumed in a written statement that the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, are recklessly austere and should be abandoned.

“Sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) wrote with unusual anger and bluntness. “The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and . . . fund[s] the government in a responsible — and attainable — way.”

The development suggests that Republican support is eroding rapidly for the sequester, weakening the hand of House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) as Republicans brace for another big fight with President Obama over taxes, spending and the federal debt limit later this year.

Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans were on the verge of killing a more generous Democratic version of the transportation measure that proposes to cancel the sequester entirely. Without an agreement on how to fund federal agencies in 2014, the nation faces the risk of a government shutdown at the end of September.

The collapse of the transportation bill, meanwhile, diverted attention from the primary goal House GOP leaders hoped to accomplish before heading home for five weeks: embarrassing the Obama administration and scoring political points. Eager to call fresh attention to the troubled Internal Revenue Service and lingering doubts about Obama’s health-care law, Republican leaders dubbed this “Stop Government Abuse Week” and had scheduled votes on a collection of partisan measures intended to curb the power of government.

The theme had been in the works for more than a month, and GOP aides privately admitted that House leaders rushed consideration of a truncated farm bill in early July to make space on the calendar. Several of the measures passed the GOP-controlled House in previous years, but have been ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who sponsored legislation that would limit non-military government travel and require detailed reports on conference spending, said it doesn’t matter when the measures make it to Obama’s desk.

“The whole purpose of these votes, in my opinion, is to show that when we see government abuses, we try to do something about them,” he said. “Even if we can’t get the Senate to act, and even if the president won’t sign them, we have told the American people that the House of Representatives stands for good, responsible, transparent government.”

Lawmakers drafted many of the proposals after it was revealed that IRS employees improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status based on political ideology. The agency is also under fire for spending $49 million on employee conferences from fiscal 2010 to 2012, including what has been described as a lavish three-day conference for 2,600 managers in California in 2010.

Not every Republican was thrilled with the focus on government mismanagement at a time when Congress has been unable to agree on more substantive matters such as immigration reform and farm policy. Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) said he would have preferred to spend the final days of July focusing on a long-delayed farm bill, as current policy is set to expire soon after lawmakers return to work Sept. 9.

“This is something that’s going to be slamming us in the face in September, and we have to address it,” he said. “I would have loved to go home, especially to my district, which is mostly agricultural . . . and been able to be like, ‘It’s a done deal. We’re good.’ ”

Instead, Rooney found himself voting Wednesday on measures with such flashy titles as “Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act” and “Stop Playing on Citizen’s Cash Act.” There’s also the STOP IRS Act — STOP stands for “Stop Targeting Our Politics” — that would permit the IRS to fire employees “who take official actions for political purposes.” And there’s a plan to bar the IRS from implementing or enforcing any aspect of the 2010 health-care law — the 40th time in recent years that the House has voted to repeal, defund or otherwise deconstruct the legislation.

The transportation bill was one of the few substantive measures left on the House calendar. It would have provided about $44 billion for transportation and housing programs in the fiscal year that begins in October, slicing those budgets by $4.4 billion over 2013.

The House approved four other appropriations bills this year, for the Pentagon and other national security programs. But those measures did not include particularly deep cuts, because House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) chose to shift the burden of the sequester onto domestic agencies when he drafted the GOP’s budget blueprint for 2014.

Although House Republicans supported the Ryan budget, the transportation bill marked the first time they were asked to implement his small-government vision. Mayors howled about the proposed cuts to community block grants, and lawmakers in both parties worried about major reductions for roads and bridges.

On Wednesday, more moderate Republican lawmakers rebelled, GOP aides said, leaving House leaders dozens of votes short. They pulled the measure around lunchtime, vowing to reintroduce it in September.

“We’ve passed four appropriations bills already this year with Republican votes. We’re confident if there was more time this week, we’d make this our fifth,” said Mike Long, a spokesman for House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

But Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), the veteran in charge of managing the transportation measure — and Boehner’s best friend — called the vote count “sketchy.” He added, “I’m not sure that the votes were all there.”

Jenna Johnson and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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