The House voted 214 to 197 last night to approve a $1.92 billion bill to finance Congress's own operations but only after overcoming prolonged stalling tactics by Democrats protesting further leadership concessions to conservatives.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had hoped to smooth the way for major spending measures earlier this week, after delivering a dramatic closed-door speech to Republicans urging unity and agreeing to make new cuts in several bills to please conservatives.
The action seemed to break a logjam, as the House approved a $14 billion agriculture appropriations bill Tuesday, the first spending bill to reach the floor this year. Republicans then pressed to complete work on the legislative branch bill to keep up the momentum.
But dozens of parliamentary maneuvers by the Democrats last night added hours to the deliberations and appeared to foreshadow more contentious partisan warfare down the road. The final vote came shortly before midnight, with 206 Republicans and only eight Democrats voting for passage.
"This is the start of the Democrats' obstructionism," complained John Feehrey, Hastert's spokesman. "They don't want us to keep on our pace to get things done."
Democrats insisted the leadership provoked the partisan warfare by unilaterally rewriting spending bills forged in the Appropriations Committee without consulting them. "Without discussion, the leadership has totally destroyed bipartisanship," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
At issue was the leadership's decision to offer an amendment cutting $54 million from the legislative branch spending bill that finances Congress, the Library of Congress and other agencies. Senior Republicans had planned to cut about $26 million from the bill. But to placate dissident conservatives led by Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), they cut an additional $28 million from the account financing members' offices.
The additional cuts would keep members' office expenses account at $385 million, the same as this year. The original bill planned a 7.3 percent increase, well above the rate of inflation. Coburn argued that the savings could be shifted to other, more needy accounts, including those for labor and health and human services programs. "The least we can do is lead by example in our own offices," he said.
Democrats complained that the conservatives, not the leaders, were calling the shots. They dismissed the relatively minor cuts as a "charade" of fiscal discipline that would not solve the larger problem of too little money for defense and nonentitlement spending in the coming year.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said the unilateral changes leave plenty of room for cost of living adjustments for staff members of committees and the leadership on both sides of the aisle "but really leave very little room for cost of living adjustments for people who work for rank and file members."