House Democratic leaders asked their members yesterday to pledge in writing to vote "no" on spending bills that contain controversial policy riders, warning that by bringing such legislation to the floor Republicans would be courting a government shutdown.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) collected signatures on the floor during votes yesterday for a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stating that Democrats would not accept the most contentious riders included on a variety of appropriations bills, including the one to fund the Interior Department and U.S. EPA.
"While not all policy riders are objectionable, many of those included this year are not only controversial but blatantly partisan," said the letter. Among those are dozens of riders attached to the Interior and Environment spending bill that would "roll back important clean air and clean water protections," it said.
"As appropriators continue working to meet funding thresholds in the Budget Control Act, it is important that Republicans not risk a government shutdown by playing politics with appropriations bills," the letter added.
Current legislation funding the government expires on Nov. 18, and Congress is expected to move a few combined bills to fund federal agencies past that date. While Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on spending levels, the battle over policy riders has been more acrimonious.
The House spent two days voting on amendments to the Interior-EPA spending bill (H.R. 2584) last July before leaving for the August recess without a final vote. Most of those amendments proposed would have added language to the bill that would bar EPA from regulating hazardous and smog- and soot-forming emissions from a variety of sources.
Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jim Moran (D-Va.), who said he was one of the first members to sign Hoyer's letter, said the number of riders on his subpanel's bill was outrageous.
"You don't write legislation, let alone re-write 30 years of environmental law on an appropriations bill," he said. "So everyone should sign onto it, even those who agree with the riders. But they won't."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said Republican's use of the appropriations process to legislate contradicted their campaign commitment last year to follow regular legislative order if they regained control of the House.
"In a broad sense, what they're about is trying to implement a policy that they have been unable to implement through the regular order," she said.
While they are in the minority in the House, Democrats do have some leverage because a number of Republicans are expected to vote against their party's leadership on the appropriations bills as a protest over what they say are insufficient spending cuts.
Still, DeLauro said the letter was not an attempt by Democrats to flex some muscle.
"I don't think it's a question about leverage," she said. "I think it's a question about the content of the bills, which is unacceptable."
Interior and EPA bill
Meanwhile, work continues behind the scenes on a compromise to fund Interior and EPA after Nov. 18.
Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he would begin meeting with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I), when the Senate returns from recess next week.
"I have no idea how long it will take, but I suspect it will be one of the harder ones," Simpson said of his bill, noting that riders would be the chief sticking point.
"We're trying to get the job done," he said
Moran said that "if it were up to Mike Simpson and I and really Jack Reed and probably [Senate ranking member] Lisa Murkowski, we'd have a bill now."
He blamed House leadership and some GOP members for insisting on anti-environmental riders that have little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"If there are a whole host of riders it's dead in the water," Moran said. "We end up with another game of chicken."