U.S. Representative Mike Pence of Indiana had a simple message for his Republican colleagues last week when they met privately on Capitol Hill to plot budget strategy: “It’s time to pick a fight.”
Pence wasn’t just talking about holding firm on the $61 billion in cuts his party proposes for this year, he said in an interview. He was advocating to keep so-called riders in the legislation that bar funds for implementing the health-care overhaul and for Planned Parenthood, a federation of reproductive health centers that provide abortions.
House Republicans inserted dozens of such provisions in the spending bill they passed last month. Some would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases and toxic emissions from cement plants and deny pay for special advisers to President Barack Obama who aren’t Senate-confirmed. As they work to break the budget impasse, Democrats and Republicans must decide which are worth fighting over.
“These aren’t really budget items; these are political statements,” Obama said in a March 11 news conference. He said he told House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio that “we’re happy to discuss any of these riders, but my general view is let’s not try to sneak political agendas into a budget debate.”
The parties are stalemated over spending for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, with Democrats rejecting Republican cuts as excessive and harmful to economic growth. Democrats offer about $9 billion in reductions. Current spending authority ends March 18, though lawmakers will vote this week on a three-week stopgap measure -- without the policy provisions -- to allow more time for talks.
The must-pass spending plan offers House Republicans one of their best opportunities to force policy changes on Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. While there’s little chance the president would sign legislation eviscerating the health-care law, provisions to curb abortion and EPA rules may be trickier because some Democrats support such moves.
Some conservative Republicans say they won’t support even another short-term spending bill without the riders.
“It’s the most important thing,” said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican working to defund the health-care law. “It’s more important than $62 billion plus or minus $5 billion or $10 billion or $20 billion.”
Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas announced today he won’t vote for the next stopgap measure, in part because it omits “many of the priorities the American people demanded,” including the policy changes on the EPA, abortion and health care.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also said he wouldn’t back it, calling the notion of keeping the government operating on a string of temporary spending bills “absurd political theater” that does nothing meaningful to rein in the deficit.
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus, said preserving provisions that bar federal funds from being used for abortion is a shutdown fight worth having -- and one abortion rights backers would lose, at least in the eyes of the public.
“Saving a large number of children’s lives from imminent death is a prudent policy,” Smith said. “I would hope that the president would say keeping the government open, versus a very narrow agenda of public funding for abortion which has no support among the American people, was more important.”
The policy provisions -- not deep budget cuts -- get the most enthusiastic plaudits from constituents at town hall meetings in Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz’s district in Provo, Utah.
The riders are “a huge selling point. It’s a big applause line back home,” Chaffetz said. Their inclusion made his vote for a spending bill he felt had too few cuts “much easier. Without them, it just loses its sex appeal,” the second-term congressman said.
Most Democrats oppose the provisions and are demanding their removal.
“The American people are not as concerned about the numbers as what is in this bill, with those mean-spirited riders,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Republican moderates in the Senate also aren’t comfortable with some of the provisions, adding to their unease at having to vote on the House measure last week. It failed along with a more expensive Democratic alternative.
Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who backs abortion rights, said she “obviously” did not agree with “all of the riders. They wouldn’t be consistent with my long-held views,” she said. Snowe, who is up for re-election next year, voted for the bill anyway.
Some Democrats who agree with the policies underlying the riders said they are concerned about implementing them through a spending bill.
“We should be trying to resolve this year’s budget debate and not putting riders on appropriations bills,” said Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights. He said he doesn’t support cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood because the organization provides family planning services that reduce abortion, as well as care for women such as breast cancer screenings for more than 40,000 in his state per year.
Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat facing re-election next year, wouldn’t say whether he would back using a spending bill to stop the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions. He noted he’s co-sponsoring a bill to set a two-year delay on imposing the rules on power plants and some other industries.
Groups pressing for the policy changes are leaning on wavering lawmakers to preserve the riders.
The American Petroleum Institute “believes that there is broad, bipartisan support for a way forward for EPA to be stopped from regulating greenhouse gases,” said Khary Cauthen, one of its lobbyists. “The defunding piece is very important.”
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List is pushing to keep the Planned Parenthood prohibition. “We are pressing, asking, cajoling, lobbying, saying, ‘This should not be negotiable,’” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president.