In an effort to ensure passage of a massive bill authorizing nearly a year’s worth of federal spending on Thursday – and to avoid a possible government shutdown – President Obama pulled out the stops, using the power of the White House to rally support for a measure backed by his longtime Congressional foil, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
How much the president’s support contributed to the bill’s passage by a tight 219-206 margin is unclear; but after getting no support from his party in a procedural vote Thursday morning, the bill received substantial Democratic backing and passed in the face of a major split in the Republican conference. The bill could not have passed without it.
The White House support for the controversial spending bill suggests that the president is signaling a willingness to cooperate with the GOP whose control of both houses of Congress come January will weigh heavily on his ability to shape his legacy in the final two years of his presidency.
But in so doing, the president has greatly strained his already tenuous relationship with liberal Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who characterized Obama’s support for the bill as a betrayal of Democratic principles.
Democratic opposition to the bill focused on a provision that would allow federally insured banks to engage in risky derivatives transactions, another allowing a tenfold increase in the amount of money wealthy individuals can donate to national political parties each year.
Pelosi took to the floor with a strong speech denouncing the bill and expressing her extreme disappointment with the White House for supporting what she characterized as a “payoff” to Wall Street and wealthy political donors.
William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and political analyst with the Brookings Institution, sees the internal Democratic feud between Obama and liberals over spending as intraparty divisions “that have been suppressed for quite a long time and they are coming to the fore.”
“Beneath this disagreement are broader stresses and strains in the party as it looks forward to the next two years and the presidential campaign,” Galston said, especially on economic issues.
Galston added that he doesn’t think Obama has given up trying to forge a relationship with Senate Majority Leader to be Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner to try to get a few more major pieces of legislation through, such as a trade deal or tax reform. “I don’t think the president has given up on some bookend legislation” to cap his second term.
Shortly after passing the massive spending bill last night, the House adopted a continuing resolution that would fund the government at existing levels for an additional 48 hours in order to give the Senate time to consider the House-passed bill. Key Democratic senators, including Warren have expressed strong opposition to the bill, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and key figures including Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) are in support. The Senate was expected to pass the CR late Thursday and to work into the weekend to approve the omnibus.
Despite optimistic predictions from Republican House leadership, the fate of the spending bill was in doubt throughout the day. Boehner nearly lost a procedural vote Thursday morning, which would have killed the bill, which is meant to fund the majority of departments of the federal government through the end of fiscal 2015. (The exception is the Department of Homeland Security, which it funds only through the early part of next year.)
Republicans were forced to take the House into recess for hours. They came back into session at about 9 p.m. for a final vote, which succeeded despite the defection of dozens of Republicans. A total of 57 Democrats supported the bill, ensuring its passage.
While Democrats fumed about the banking and campaign finance provisions slipped into the huge bill, a significant number of hard-right Republicans objected as well. That was because the measure fails to block the Obama administration from implementing executive actions that shield some 5 million immigrants from immediate deportation.
The morning vote received no Democratic support, and more than a dozen Republican defections meant that it only squeaked through by a 214-212 margin. If it, or an alternative short-term funding measure had failed to pass before midnight, the federal government would have shut down again for the second time in just over a year.
The president’s Office of Management and Budget on Thursday afternoon issued a Statement of Administration Policy indicating that the White House supported the passage of the massive omnibus spending bill. The White House followed up by sending Obama Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough to Capitol Hill so that he could personally lobby Democrats for support. The effort appears to have helped carry the day.
The divide between the White House and Congressional Democrats says a lot about what the coming two years will look like.
In discussing the administration’s tactics, Galston said, “There is some agreement tactically between the White House and the Republican leadership that clearing the deck fiscally speaking – even if some compromises have to be made along the way – may create a framework for modest progress over the next year or so.”
Jim Manley, a former spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said he is skeptical that Obama is trying to cozy up to the new GOP leadership with an eye to getting legislation passed next year.
Rather, he says that the deal between the White House, Harry Reid, Senate minority Leader McConnell and Boehner was a pragmatic decision to try to “clear the decks” of the spending issues in preparation for the inevitable showdowns next year over a new GOP agenda and an array of major decisions that will come due early in the New Year.
Those include renewal of the highway and transportation bill, raising the debt ceiling, the Medicare “Doc Fix” and others. If Congress had been unable to complete work on the omnibus spending bill by this weekend, all that would have been pushed into 2015, greatly complicating the work of lawmakers and the administration.
“It’s a matter of getting the best deal you can, recognizing that it’s only going to get worse over the next two years once the Senate goes Republican,” he said.
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