Reelection bids and a Senate rivalry threaten to derail spending bills

Election-year politics and personality-driven rivalries have collided in the U.S. Senate to upend what some had hoped would be a cease-fire in the long-running congressional fiscal wars.

The result is that Washington seems headed for another bout of legislative gridlock as lawmakers prepare to spend most of the late summer and fall campaigning for reelection. It means that come October, it is increasingly likely that federal agencies will have to function for some portion of fiscal 2015 on auto­pilot, based on the previous year’s funding plans rather than on detailed new budgets.

While the House continues to churn through its share of annual spending bills for the federal government, the Senate is mired in a procedural standoff directly related to the growing number of competitive races that will decide the chamber’s majority in the November elections.

At the center of the deadlock is the fight over coal and its place in the manufacturing economies of several battleground states, particularly Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is basing his reelection bid on protecting the coal industry from new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency.

McConnell is threatening to add restrictions to federal agency budgets that would neutralize the regulations, prompting Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to at least temporarily derail consideration of the 12 spending bills that need to be approved by Sept. 30.

Fight escalates

Rather than using the 10-day recess for the Independence Day holiday to reach a deal with McConnell, Reid on Monday escalated the fight, warning that continued delaying tactics by Republicans would prompt him to unilaterally change long-standing rules about debate time.

Reid said the Republicans were intentionally frustrating the workings of the Senate, particularly on President Obama’s executive branch and judicial nominees, so they could paint the Democrat-controlled chamber as dysfunctional for political benefit in November.

“They just want to slow things down. They want everybody to look bad,” Reid said during a 15-minute speech.

Democratic aides said a final decision on whether to proceed with the dozen funding bills is still days or weeks away, but Reid cited several legislative items that he considers important for passage this summer — from replenishing the federal Highway Trust Fund to passing an emergency bill to deal with the humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minors arriving at the Mexican border. He made no mention of resuming the annual must-pass appropriations bills that fund the government.

“Not any,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said when asked about progress. “I think there’s a lot of blame to go around everywhere.”

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The compromise two-year budget agreement hatched in December by the House and Senate budget committee chairmen, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), was supposed to put an end to the spending fights for a while.

The two chairmen reached a deal that provided some relief from automatic spending cuts that had been part of a previous compromise. More important, Ryan and Murray agreed to set budget totals at the same level for the GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate, meaning that both chambers’ appropriations committees would be writing federal agency budgets at the same top-line number — $2.03 trillion over two years ($1.012 trillion for the current year and $1.014 trillion for 2015).

That agreement, coming on the heels of a 16-day shutdown of the government last October, set up the chance for the two chambers to work through the regular procedures of drawing up legislation in committee, passing it and then having House-Senate conference committees craft a final compromise. The hope was that moving the annual spending bills in this fashion might build trust between the two sides to broker a compromise on bigger deals.

“This is good government; it’s also divided government. And under divided government, we need to take steps in the right direction,” Ryan said on the House floor in December before the vote approving the budget pact.

The House has begun taking those steps, with this week’s likely passage of the bill funding the Energy Department and other water-related projects marking the halfway point in approving the 12 separate bills. Many of the five spending bills already passed have been approved by wide bipartisan margins, such as the 321-to-87 approval of legislation funding the Commerce, Justice and State departments.

House moves along

This recent efficiency in the House is in stark contrast to the first three years of Republican control of the chamber, during which Speaker John A. Boehner’s caucus, dominated by conservatives, caused the most drama in a series of fiscal showdowns with Obama and Senate Democrats.

Over the objections of Boehner (R-Ohio), House Republicans drove the strategy of shutting down the government last fall. Now they are voting in overwhelming numbers to fund agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the many departments they once considered a waste of taxpayer money.

It is the Senate that has become the derailment site in fiscal negotiations.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, under the feisty direction of its chairman, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), had churned out enough of its funding bills that Reid initially cobbled together three of them for consideration in late June.

But McConnell declared that he would try to attach an anti-EPA amendment to one of the spending bills. “I’m going to continue to fight. Kentuckians deserve no less. I’m going to keep vigorously fighting against the Obama administration’s continued war on coal jobs — and this extreme, anti-middle-class national energy tax in particular,” McConnell said.

Democrats are upset because McConnell is demanding that his amendment votes be held to a simple-majority standard, as is the tradition for amendments on the annual spending bills if they are deemed appropriate. An amendment reining in the EPA’s powers to regulate power plants would almost certainly draw more than 50 votes, because some Democrats — including a handful in tough races in conservative-leaning states — would vote with Republicans.

Reid’s leadership team is most anxious to protect the second tier of vulnerable Democrats, who hail from swing states such as Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire, from taking those votes.

Democrats contend that it is hypocritical of McConnell to demand 60-vote thresholds on major legislative initiatives, such as raising the minimum wage, but then call for a simple majority on an amendment vote that would be akin to a major legislative position.

His campaign in Kentucky is wrapped around two issues of late, defending his state’s coal industry and using his feud with Reid over the chamber’s procedural tactics to help in what is a competitive reelection fight. Of the last nine posts on McConnell’s Facebook campaign page, six have been about coal or ousting Reid as majority leader, or both.

“In November, we in Kentucky have a chance to fire Harry Reid and put the Senate back to work for the American people,” McConnell’s campaign wrote Sunday.

Shelby said the funding bills were not officially declared dead yet, but the toxic political mix of McConnell’s interests in Kentucky and Democrats’ desire to protect their endangered incumbents from tough votes made the bills’ future highly doubtful.

“Reid wants to protect his people,” Shelby said. “We know what it is — it’s a big power game.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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