Old Hands Deftly Hold the Reins on Appropriators

After losing a bid to become majority leader in 1996, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) retreated to the Appropriations Committee, whose tradition of bipartisan comity suited his personal style.
After losing a bid to become majority leader in 1996, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) retreated to the Appropriations Committee, whose tradition of bipartisan comity suited his personal style. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

Sen. Thad Cochran, an adroit pork purveyor, has a special talent for protecting Mississippi cotton subsidies.

Courtly and soft-spoken, he is as southern as sweet tea and magnolia trees.

Rep. Jerry Lewis is an ace at wangling defense dollars for all the military sites in his Southern California district. He is known for his jovial manner and his bichon frisé , Bruin, who often accompanies Lewis to the Capitol.

The veteran Republican lawmakers' recent ascent as appropriations committee chairmen is good news for all the interests back home that rely on federal largesse. But Cochran and Lewis are also old-style dealmakers, and their collegial approach may be just the ticket for fixing a badly broken spending process.

One of Congress's primary responsibilities each year is producing a series of individual appropriations bills that fund everything from Pentagon hardware to housing subsidies. But unable to reconcile competing priorities in time to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, lawmakers now routinely fold together unfinished money bills into one big omnibus package that is laden with extras while withholding funding elsewhere.

"That's hardly the way the system is supposed to work," Lewis said.

He and Cochran have a simple goal: to deliver the fiscal 2006 funding bills on time and within the strict spending limits that Congress has set for itself to restore fiscal discipline. Standing in their way are policy differences within the GOP and with Democrats, along with potential organizational hurdles because of a House leadership-driven redesign of Lewis's panel that will result in the House producing 11 separate bills, compared with the Senate's 12.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) orchestrated the redesign in part to avoid another omnibus bill, but many Senate Republicans strongly objected to following the House's lead, so Cochran made only minor changes to his panel.

Working in the chairmen's favor, Congress did pass a budget this spring, which should help restrain the addition of pork. Both chairmen are also expected to work closely with their Republican leadership -- not par for the course for the traditionally autonomous panels, but it could help to keep the process on track. And with polls showing Congress's popularity plummeting, Republicans may be starting to feel the heat and be more motivated to get the job done.

Cochran, 67, is the son of a school principal and teacher. In high school, he became an Eagle Scout and an accomplished vocalist and pianist, while earning varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and tennis. He studied psychology at the University of Mississippi, served in the Navy and broke academic records as a law student at Ole Miss.

Along the way, Cochran held a variety of jobs: carhop at a dairy bar, grocery store clerk, lifeguard, cattle hand. His political career started in 1972, when he was elected to the House. He and his wife, Rose, have two children.

Lewis, 70, is a native of San Bernardino County, where he owned an insurance company and later served on the school board and in the California State Assembly. He and his wife, Arlene, have seven children. Lewis studied government at the University of California at Los Angeles -- hence his dog's name, Bruin, after the UCLA mascot.

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