House Republicans Back Restricted Rules to Advance Defense Bill

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By Nancy Ognanovich

June 8 — House Republicans backed Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) plan to begin bringing the annual appropriations bills to the floor under highly restrictive rules, beginning with the $575 billion Department of Defense spending measure.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the strategy's strong endorsement by the Republican caucus means the Pentagon spending bill will move to the floor by June 15 and amendments on both sides will be curtailed in order to get the measure passed in two days' time.

The Rules Committee “will be making in order only those that are legitimate and will weed out those that are there for political gamesmanship,” Rogers told Bloomberg BNA after the meeting.

Ryan's plan to use so-called structured rules means Republican as well as Democratic changes to the Defense and other bills will be restricted, but Rogers still said the reaction of the caucus was “very positive.”

“In fact, no one spoke against it,” he said.

But Democrats immediately criticized the strategy, saying it is at odds with promises Ryan made to give lawmakers greater input into the legislative process. They also charged that the plan aims to protect a special interest agenda.

“Republicans are clearly afraid of the will of the House when it comes to protecting LGBT Americans or standing up for hard-working families,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “Meanwhile, the GOP leadership will continue to salt bills with poison pill riders that attack women’s health, the environment, workers’ rights and vital Wall Street reforms.”

‘Poison Pills' at Issue

Ryan proposed a new rules policy after a Democratic amendment seeking to protect LGBT employees of federal contractors emerged as a threat to the first two of the 12 annual spending bills. A battle over the issue was seen as causing the otherwise popular Energy and Water bill (H.R. 5055) to fail by a large margin last month (See previous story, 05/27/16).

“We'll bring it back,” Rogers said. But he said the timing “is not set yet.”

“We will bring Legislative Branch to the floor on Thursday,” Rogers said, referring to the $3.5 billion measure—the smallest of the 12—to fund House operations. “Then next week we will ring up the Defense bill under a structured rule.”

Rogers had less to say about what happens after Defense and whether the House then moves on to the annual spending bills for Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development and Commerce-Justice-Science as observers suggest (See previous story, 06/07/16). He said he is preparing for a House-Senate conference to begin soon on a package (H.R. 4974) combining the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill and legislation to combat the Zika virus.

Democrats said amendments to the Legislative Branch bill (H.R. 5325) are typically limited, but Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) reacted angrily to plans to sharply restrict amendments to the massive Defense bill, which represents more than half of $1.070 trillion in discretionary spending. She said members are being given very short notice that they won't be able to offer their planned changes.

“It's largely about protecting discrimination against the LGBT,” Slaughter said at a hearing on Leg Branch.

Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said the strategy really is aimed at eliminating threats to the appropriations bills' progress from both sides of the aisle, however.

“I'm not for poison pills on either side,” Sessions said. “I'm not allowing those.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of both the Rules and Appropriations panels, said appropriators' work is increasingly threatened by “culture wars.”

“I think we are in danger of losing the process,” Cole said.

Senate Showdown Looms

Other threats to the process have emerged, however. The outcome of two votes June 9 could determine whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has to abandon his plan to start debate on that chamber's Defense appropriations bill (S. 3000) the week of June 13.

Aides said the Senate will vote on an amendment Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed to the related Defense authorization bill (S. 2943) to raise Pentagon spending by $18 billion over last fall's budget agreement. After that, the Senate is scheduled to consider an amendment Democrats want to similarly increase non-defense spending by another $18 billion. The latter includes $1.9 billion to address the Zika threat (See previous story, 06/08/16).

Aides said Democrats may vote for the measure even if their amendment fails. But they warned that minus “parity” in the treatment of defense and nondefense Democrats may oppose McConnell's motion to proceed next to the DOD appropriations bill. Democrats held ranks last year and prevented the Senate from taking up the FY 2016 spending bill in order to force Republicans to negotiate the two-year budget deal. None of the individual 2016 bills moved in the Senate after Democrats blocked the Defense measure.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com