True to form for the fractious 113th Congress, last night’s vote was a cliff-hanger. Many Democrats — urged on first by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and then by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — had balked at provisions that would roll back campaign finance and Dodd-Frank rules. In light of several dozen conservatives who had vowed to oppose the deal on the grounds that the bill was too soft on the president’s immigration executive order, it was unclear whether Democrats would provide enough votes to help pass the bill.
Why did the Cromnibus eventually pass and what broader lessons can we draw from the day’s drama? A few considerations.
First, despite all the attention to Warren and Pelosi’s dramatic calls to strip the Dodd-Frank provisions from the spending bill, the outcome reflected some enduring patterns in congressional politics. To get a broad sense of those dynamics, I ginned up a simple model of the vote as a function of each lawmaker’s party, committee assignments (i.e. membership on the financial services or appropriations panels) and electoral circumstance (lame duck status).
The probabilities of voting for the bill displayed below are not surprising: Republicans outgunned Democrats in likelihood of voting for the bill, and members of the Appropriations and Financial Services panels were disproportionately more likely to vote in favor. (Think of this as pride in ownership for appropriators since it was their bill and for finance members because they had originated the Dodd-Frank change last year). And severing the electoral connection for lame duck members does indeed generate more support for leadership-favored bills (leadership that is, except Pelosi).
Second, the dispute over the Dodd-Frank “pushout” rule surely signals the Republican strategy for the coming two years: slowly chip away at the more vulnerable provisions of Dodd-Frank, especially those with a modicum of bipartisan support. Repeal of the pushout rule after all had secured 70 Democratic votes in the fall of 2013 when it came to the floor as a standalone bill, and just over half of those Democrats voted in favor of the Cromnibus. Given that Democrats only had to provide roughly 50 votes for the Cromnibus, those Democrats comprised two-thirds of their party’s pro-Cromnibus coalition. In that sense, it was clearly an uphill battle for Warren to prevail on the House vote.
Third, one dominant view after the vote was that Pelosi and Warren lost the battle but perhaps scored a “tactical victory” that will put the liberal wing of the Democratic Party on stronger footing in the coming Congress. Warren clearly lost the battle; Pelosi, I’m not so sure. My hunch is that Pelosi is too smart a politician and knows her caucus too well to have been surprised by the outcome. True to form, Pelosi provided cover for Democrats seeking to show their anti-Wall Street bona fides, yet managed not to derail a bipartisan deal (that was bound to be better for Democratic priorities than kicking the can into the new Congress with a 2-3 month stop gap spending bill).
Did Warren’s gambit put the liberal wing on stronger footing in the coming Congress? I’m skeptical. Warren clearly put Democratic party leaders and her colleagues on notice that she will continue to oppose measures that unduly advantage Wall Street interests. But unless she can secure stronger backing from the White House (and her colleagues), I suspect that the liberal wing of the Democratic party will face a tough road ahead in a Republican-led Congress.
Finally, last night’s drama provides a glimpse of the battles ahead. Appropriations bills will surely be key vehicles for loading up with Republicans’ deregulatory and other conservative priorities. Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged to return to “regular order,” presumably meaning that he will seek to bring the 12 spending bills to the floor separately to avoid omnibus legislating. But that would require bipartisan bills that can secure cloture on the Senate floor.
In fact, Republicans’ leverage for pursuing their agenda might arguably be greater if they jump on the R’Omnibus (Republican-Omnibus, that is) and send Obama a thousand page bill on September 30th. That tactic would likely make it harder for the president to exploit his veto to secure a more favorable deal for Democrats — lest he be blamed for shutting down the government with his veto pen.
All told, although we live in an era of impoverished legislating, at least it occasionally provides good drama.