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 frise, 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.
His district stretches from eastern Los Angeles to the Nevada border. Although he has lavished funding on his district's many defense-related sites, including Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, Lewis proudly notes the public housing and child-care programs that he has backed over the years. He even rounded up colleagues to help build two Habitat for Humanity houses in Washington.
Cochran was elected to the Senate and Lewis to the House in 1978, and both quickly climbed the GOP leadership ladder. But their consensus-building approaches fell out of favor in the mid-1990s, as Republicans shifted to a more top-down and confrontational style of governing. Cochran rose to the third-ranking GOP post in the Senate but lost a bid for majority leader in 1996 to fellow Mississippian Trent Lott. In 1993, Lewis lost his Republican Conference chairmanship -- the No. 3 GOP job in the House -- to then-Rep. Richard K. Armey (Tex.), a close ally of Newt Gingrich (Ga.).
Both men retreated to appropriations, traditionally a separate universe, where bipartisanship and comity have typically been more welcome. They finally got the top jobs when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) were forced to step aside because of term limits.
Cochran and Lewis are not as colorful as some previous chairmen. Stevens, for example, an unrelenting advocate for every niche interest in his state, inspired a saying among appropriations staffers: "There's no endgame without fish."
Of the two, Lewis is considered the bigger question mark. He is admired by his colleagues as a veteran legislator, with "a good, strong 'enough's enough' streak," says James W. Dyer, a longtime Republican staff director of the House panel who is now at the Clark & Weinstock public affairs firm. But Lewis did have to beat two equally senior colleagues for the job, and that has raised suspicions that he may not enjoy the authority of his predecessors.
Leadership support has its benefits and drawbacks. As of last week, with such support, Lewis had pushed through six of his 11 bills, with the five remaining expected to pass before July 4. But when Cochran held a meeting earlier this year on committee restructuring, he had an unexpected guest: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) showed up as well.
Cochran and Lewis got a preview of what they are up against in the recent debate over an $82 billion emergency spending bill that the White House had requested to pay the Iraq and Afghanistan war costs.
Senators, knowing the bill was sure to pass, wanted to attach a slew of pet projects, and the lobbying became intense. A senior Pennsylvania GOP official placed a call to Lewis on behalf of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who had wanted to slip in funding for a clean-coal project, and who is up for reelection in 2006. Cochran let his House colleague play the bad cop. Lewis's pat response: "We can't help you on this bill."
Cochran, meanwhile, helped to thwart an effort by conservatives to reduce funding for a new embassy compound in Baghdad. The White House wanted $658 million, but opponents argued that most of the money was not needed immediately. The House voted to strip it. As the Senate prepared to debate the legislation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Cochran from Air Force One to press the administration's case for full funding. He quietly worked over his colleagues, and an amendment to reduce the embassy allocation was narrowly defeated.
Placating conservatives will remain important as the year unfolds. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who sponsored the embassy amendment in the Senate, said he is combing for waste in the House bills and has taken some of his concerns to Cochran.
"He's a sweetheart, and I'm going to continue to work with him," Coburn said of Cochran. "But we need to demonstrate to the American people that we're interested in the budget and in controlling spending."
Lewis regularly meets with House conservatives, just to talk things over. One of the leaders of that faction, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), saluted Lewis on the floor, calling the emergency bill "masterful and disciplined work." And Lewis consults with committee Democrats, in particular the two most senior members, Reps. David R. Obey (Wis.) and John P. Murtha (Pa.), who called the emergency bill "probably the most bipartisan bill one could ever find."
But if Republicans are serious about deficit reduction, the appropriations committees face a slew of difficult decisions. Any number of areas could ignite an intractable battle.
"You can try to move money out of cancer research into Head Start, or from Meals on Wheels into reading programs, but there are very few politicians who are willing to make those choices," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director for the House panel and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
On the other hand, said Dyer, the former GOP staff director of the House panel, "the early returns are encouraging" because Lewis's bills are not drawing the usual objections, from Democrats or others. "They're not happy with the top-line number, but they're happy with the process," Dyer said of House members. "That is literally the key to success."
Rep. Jerry Lewis's consensus-building approach fell out of favor in the 1990s, but now the California Republican has won praise for bringing discipline to the appropriations process.