Democrats were positively giddy when the House GOP pulled the emergency brake on a key spending bill on Wednesday, as moderate Republicans rebelled against the chamber’s draconian cuts to transportation and housing.
This was the moment progressives had been waiting for. “What you saw yesterday was an epic collapse, with the House GOP proving that they can’t make their own budget workable. They can’t get it passed in their own chamber,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the Senate Budget Committee.
But it wasn’t long before their happy dance was interrupted: Republicans on the other side of the Capitol united to filibuster the Senate’s version of the same bill, blocking the measure on a 54-43 vote on Thursday. While Wednesday’s events revealed deep divisions and strife within the House Republican caucus, Thursday’s successful filibuster was a clear display of GOP unity: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully convinced five Republicans who had originally voted to move the bill out of committee to join the opposition, ensuring its failure and providing cover for the House GOP’s meltdown.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who supported the legislation in the appropriations committee last month, said she backed the filibuster because there weren’t sufficient changes to the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) bill. “There were only two amendments,” Murkowski, a Republican, said shortly after the vote. Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Jerry Moran of Kansas, had also voted the transportation and housing appropriations bill out of committee, only to support Thursday’s filibuster of the same legislation.
McConnell neither proposed an alternative, nor did he back the House proposal. What he offered was a politically irresistible cause for conservatives: Spending cuts in the abstract, without the specific cuts that prompted some House Republicans to bolt from their own party’s budget the day before. McConnell argued that Republicans were simply holding true to 2011’s Budget Control Act, which set overall discretionary levels at $91 billion lower than what Senate Democrats are proposing. The Democratic budget, by contrast, was “an attempt to blow up an important bipartisan achievement by busting the spending caps both parties already agreed to,” he said earlier this week.
McConnell’s success shows that Republicans still aren’t prepared to raise a white flag over the 2014 budget, despite the chaos in the other chamber. And House Speaker John Boehner still insists that he can keep his caucus together, denying the charge that he didn’t have the votes for the THUD bill. ”Sometimes members get frustrated. They got frustrated yesterday,” he told reporters.
But that doesn’t change the fundamental truth that the House laid bare this week: Republicans are having trouble mustering support for its draconian cuts, as neither the party’s conservatives nor its moderates are willing to rally behind the cause when specific programs are actually put on the chopping block. And some are already making common cause with Democrats.
“I would like to point out that not one of my colleagues have offered a specific amendment, account by account, to reduce the funding levels program by program,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only Republican to support the cloture vote for the Senate THUD bill. “It is surely significant that a substantial number of [House] Republicans felt that the bill as written was far too low and would hurt our homeless veterans and delay repair of our infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, conservatives both on and off the Hill are turning their attention to defunding Obamacare, an entirely separate issue. The House GOP’s leadership fixation on spending caps is misplaced, explained Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action. “The appearance of infighting over the funding levels, which Republicans claimed to have locked in back in February, will distract some from the real fight over the year-end spending bill, which is defunding Obamacare.”
That means that Republicans are facing a lonely, difficult quest to defend the sweeping discretionary cuts that they say they want. And some of their most prominent leaders are already admitting as much.
“I believe that the House has made its choice. Sequestration–and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts–must be brought to an end,” House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers said in a surprisingly blunt statement on Wednesday. “With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago.”