Dem Appropriators Mull Role

Note to readers: This is the third of a three-part series examining the House appropriations process from the perspective of several key players.

Faced with Republicans feuding over how to pass funding measures, Democratic appropriators say they do not know what role they will be allowed to play in shaping the fiscal 1999 bills.

"I don't have any idea," House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., said in an interview. "It depends on the internal dynamics of the Republican caucus." He later added, "The majority decides whether the minority is included or not."

During the 104th Congress, Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to shape appropriations measures and then consulted with Democrats--a decision Obey said resulted in major decisions being made behind closed doors with few people involved. "When they're following a slash and burn policy, they're not going to get Democrats to work with them," he said.

In contrast, GOP appropriators this year consulted with Democrats early. For example, "You had a more progressive [coalition] of Democrats and moderate Republicans working" on the Labor-HHS bill, Obey said. However, conservative Republicans were livid with GOP appropriators for that strategy and stalled the Labor-HHS bill for weeks with a myriad of amendments.

"We had a bipartisan agreement, but you had [House Speaker] Gingrich's weaknesses, especially with the right wing, causing problems for the committee," Obey said. Asked why Republicans were more willing to work with him this year, Obey said, "I can't assume what someone else's motivation is," but added he assumes GOP pollsters indicated the old strategy was not working. "I think the public reaction to their overreaching ... resulted in some of them wanting more cooperation," he said.

However, House Appropriations member David Skaggs, D-Colo., said he believes the problems Republicans had passing funding measures during the 104th Congress "empowered" GOP leaders to encourage cooperation with Democrats. After capturing the House on a conservative platform, GOP leaders had to "talk about blood a little bit," Skaggs said. But that rhetoric caused many conservatives to set their expectations too high, he contended, adding, "Ultimately, that was their own undoing." This year, Skaggs said, by and large, contentious policy issues were "simply purged."

A key House Democratic aide said Republicans--having lost some conservatives in the 1996 election--no longer could afford to ignore Democrats or GOP moderates. "We had a House in which there no longer were 218 Republican votes for any budget bill," the aide said. "They had to find a way to get Democratic votes."

To do that, Republicans chose to cut a balanced budget deal with President Clinton before even trying to pass a budget of their own. "It would have been more helpful if they had struggled for a time to put together 218 votes for a Republican package," the aide said, adding that the inability to pass conservative spending measures would have "become clear [even] to people who can't count votes." The aide said conservatives refuse to acknowledge that their agenda cannot be passed in the House. "They don't understand why they can't do what they want to do," he said. "And why can't they? Because the majority of the House doesn't want to do what they want to do."

Even though Republicans worked more closely with their Democratic colleagues, Obey said conservatives forced GOP members to make two big mistakes--refusing to provide funds for money owed to the United Nations and blocking funding for the International Monetary Fund to help stabilize Asian economies. Conservatives "blackmailed" their leaders into deleting those funds, which Obey called a "terrible potential problem."

The battles within the Republican Conference are likely to continue, Obey predicted. "You still have that little band of zealots who are pulling the Republican caucus around by its nose," he said.

The Democratic aide suggested that conservatives are so angry they may block appropriations measures and force the House simply to pass a large continuing resolution. "A lot of them would prefer to send a message than deliver a product," Obey said. "Are you going to have the enforcers of orthodoxy who insist that everything be run by them, or are people going to accept that Congress is basically a pragmatic institution?"

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