After a year of Republican upheaval on Capitol Hill, some things have not changed. Congress on Wednesday embarked on its holiday ritual of trying to make sense of a trillion-dollar spending bill to keep the government functioning days before lawmakers head home for the holidays.
The 2,009-page spending legislation and a companion 233-page tax bill are the final product of months of sparring both inside and between the two parties. They also represent the first major negotiation conducted by new House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who immediately sought to distance himself from the proposed legislation Wednesday, even as he embraced the importance of compromise.
“Let me be the first to say, I don’t think this is the way government should work,” he said, hours after the midnight release of the two bills. “We played the cards that we were dealt with as best as we possibly could.”
The remarks reflected the fact that the deal unveiled late Tuesday included few clear-cut wins for House conservatives who helped push out former speaker John A. Boehner earlier this year. And, despite Ryan’s promise of a more inclusive process, the negotiations ended in the same high-stakes, closed-door give-and-take involving only a handful of congressional leaders that has closed out virtually every fiscal deal in recent memory.
But one important difference this time around is that members from across the House GOP expressed confidence in Ryan, even though only a handful of members were willing to openly support the spending bill in the hours after its release.
“Paul is getting good marks for doing the best he could,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus group. “He’s been really careful not to set high expectations. . . . He basically said, ‘Give me a strong hand, I can negotiate a strong deal. Don’t give me a strong hand, and it won’t be as good.”
To most conservatives, Republicans took some significant losses in negotiations with Democratic congressional leaders and the White House. Rank-and-file Republicans hoped to slam the brakes on the Obama administration’s pursuit of new labor and environmental regulations, insert new antiabortion restrictions on federal spending, and increase vetting for refugees admitted from terrorist hotbeds. None of that happened.
Those provisions did not make it into the final deal, in part because a large chunk of House Republicans are unwilling to support virtually any spending bill, leaving the GOP to highlight other wins: the end of the 40-year-old ban of crude oil exports, new curbs on Internal Revenue Service funding and the extension of numerous tax breaks — issues that are considerably further from the hearts of the GOP base.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a leader of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, said the oil export provision is “a victory — a good victory, but I don’t think the people in the hinterlands are going to be jumping up and down for that.”
Democrats, meanwhile, could point to a string of victories — starting with the overall increase in domestic funding secured in the late October budget deal negotiated by Boehner in an effort to clear the slate for Ryan. They managed to keep the most controversial spending directives — “riders” — off the bill, including attempts to curb new regulations governing federal clean water protections and retirement investment advisers.
A House vote on the $622 billion tax bill is expected Thursday, with a vote on the $1.1 trillion spending bill Friday. The two measures are set to be combined for consideration in the Senate, where leaders hope to quickly clear the package after the House finishes up.
Some Democrats on Wednesday raised objections to the lifting of the oil export ban and other provisions, but the legislative package appeared to be on its way to passage after Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House threw their support behind the deal.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked House Democrats in a closed-door session Wednesday to hold off on deciding until they had reviewed the bill. But most members leaving the meeting said they expect the omnibus spending measure to pass even as some pressed for additional GOP concessions.
“The omnibus is probably going to be passed, but I do think there is a great deal of consternation about some of the provisions that are in it,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.).
Reid called the agreement a good compromise that includes provisions that benefit both parties without compromising principles. He outlined victories for Democrats, including expanded funding for domestic programs and expanded tax credits for alternative energy production. “No legislation is perfect, but this is good legislation,” he said.
The Obama administration announced itself satisfied with the budget. “The president is pleased with the final product, even if it does reflect the kind of compromise that’s necessary when you have a Democratic president negotiating with large majorities of Republicans in both the House and Senate,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Still, Democratic consternation over lifting the oil ban underscores the difficult procedural maneuvering congressional leaders are employing to enact the spending and tax package.
While most Democrats oppose lifting the export ban, party leaders agreed to it in exchange for concessions that include an extension of renewable energy tax incentives and a new Oceans and Coastal Security Fund.
But Democrats expected the language lifting the oil ban to be included in the tax bill, which most will vote against, as opposed to the spending bill, which they will need to support to avoid a government shutdown.
“The export provision is certainly a very bitter pill, I think, for a great many of us,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
Republicans, however, are reluctant to vote for the spending increases, and the oil export provision was moved to that bill in a bid to win more Republican votes for it, according to several members and aides.
For Ryan, the appropriations bill represents the last major task in clearing the House agenda of must-pass legislation that has previously exposed deep divides within the GOP, and many Republicans said they will consider its passage as the end of Ryan’s post-Boehner honeymoon and the true beginning of his speakership.
In a recent speech and in interviews, Ryan pledged to use 2016 to lay out an ambitious governing agenda that will give Republican candidates a robust platform to campaign on — particularly if the party nominates a divisive candidate in the presidential race.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who said he plans to oppose the spending bill, in part because it does not include refugee security legislation he wrote, did not fault Ryan for negotiating a deal that he — and perhaps most House Republicans — will not support.
“I think most people understand that this wasn’t his idea; this was something he inherited, so I think we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Hudson said. “Next year, it’s on him. It’s on his watch.”
Karoun Demirjian, Steven Mufson and Paul Kane contributed to this report.