At least one thing will be clear if a year-end spending bill passes the House Friday: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has found a way to break the pattern of Republican leaders depending on Democratic votes to pass major fiscal measures.
All year long, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) Democratic caucus has managed to remain relevant in spending and budget negotiations — an impressive feat considering how low Democratic morale had been going into 2015.
Last year, House Democrats were convinced the 114th Congress would leave them largely on the sidelines. In the wake of a tough midterm election cycle and a year-end spending deal, it looked like the White House had decided to forego congressional Democrats and partner with Republicans.
“When we came into the year we just thought we were just going to get rolled on everything,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the party’s chief deputy whip in the House, in a phone interview last week. “It’s been really interesting to me to because of course the House Democrats have their smallest numbers in 80 years.”
Whether it was funding for the Department of Homeland Security, a stopgap funding bill in September or a combined deal on the budget and the debt limit, GOP leaders have consistently had to rely on the near-unanimous support of House Democrats to get compromise legislation through the chamber. In all three cases, a majority of Republican members opposed the final bill.
But Ryan appears on the verge of shifting that political calculus ahead of Friday’s vote on the $1.1 trillion year-end spending bill. For the first time this year, a sizable portion of the Democratic caucus appears ready to vote against a budget item. Already, the House passed a $680 billion tax extender package by a vote of 318-109. On that vote, 241 House Republicans voted for the proposal.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said that “there’s a general consensus of disapproval,” among progressive Democrats on both the tax and omnibus portions of the year-end package.
Ellison said he planned on voting against both bills because they include provisions to lift the crude oil export ban and bar the Securities and Exchange Commission from enforcing new rules examining political contributions. He also wanted negotiators to include measures to relieve Puerto Rico’s imminent debt crisis, which didn’t happen. Ryan said in a statement Wednesday that he has instructed House committees to come up with legislation to help solve Puerto Rico’s financial problems by the end of March.
When it comes to Democrats opposing the omnibus bill, “There is a building coalition … whether it’s from the African-American Caucus, or from the Hispanic Caucus or from the Asian-Pacific Caucus, of issues that I don’t think were dealt with,” said Rep. Luis Guttierez (D-Ill.), a member of the both the Progressive and Congressional Hispanic Caucuses.
Even Pelosi, who herself supports the omnibus, said Thursday that GOP leaders can’t necessarily expect Democratic members to carry the spending bill as they have in the past. “Our members are going to do what our members are going to do,” she told reporters.
Until this vote, House Democrats had taken advantage of fissures within the GOP conference to strengthen their negotiating hand. DeGette attributed the Democrats’ improved position to “simple math.”
The House Freedom Caucus, the group of 40-odd hardliners who formalized their frustration with House management by creating a new, invite-only coalition for disgruntled conservatives, allowed a united Democratic caucus to influence votes. The Freedom Caucus represents enough votes that when all members hold out on legislation, House Republican leaders have to turn to Pelosi for help, who in turn can extract concessions. That’s exactly what she has done.
“The Democrats have done a remarkable job of really sticking together on these key votes, which gives us leverage,” said DeGette.
By attaching the oil export ban to the omnibus bill, Ryan appears to have succeeded in rupturing that Democratic unity and winning over a number of oil-state Republicans in a single stroke.
“As a whip, I was very glad to see it there,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the oil export provision. “Some of those [oil] states are some of our most conservative delegations, so this is very helpful.”
Asked if that was why the oil export ban was attached to the omnibus instead of a year-end tax bill, Cole said acknowledged that there might have been political motivations. “I wouldn’t accuse us of being overly subtle,” he said.
Though many members of the Freedom Caucus are unlikely to support the omnibus measure, Cole said that appropriators are working to get a majority of Republicans on board. And even if they don’t, he expects the vote tally to show more GOP ‘Yes’s’ than on earlier fiscal votes like the bipartisan budget deal or the September continuing resolution.
“We think it’s important for Ryan to have a substantial Republican vote,” he said. “That just puts him in a strong position going forward, he’s going to be our chief negotiator.”
There is little evidence that progressives who are upset with the final product of this year’s deal are blaming Pelosi and her leadership team. “If we balance it all, to me it’s more negative than positive,” said Ellison. “But it would have been even more negative had it not been for the excellent work of our appropriators on the [Democratic] side.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said that he will vote against the omnibus bill, but he has no complaints about the negotiation process. “I wasn’t locked out,” Grijalva said. “We were updated, the last three nights not that much, but every morning there would be a briefing if members chose to go.”
These comments are different from the frustration that some Democrats expressed one year ago. In the wake of the 2014 midterms, where Republicans flipped the Senate and picked up another 13 seats in the House, frustration with Pelosi had begun to boil over into public view. At that point the long-time San Francisco representative had led her colleagues – as minority leader, then speaker, then again minority leader – for over a decade. A few House Democrats began wondering whether it was time for new blood.
Rep. Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), considered by many a rising star for the Democrats, announced before she even took office that Pelosi would not get her vote for speaker. And in April of this year, Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) suggested Pelosi should step down in a joint appearance on WGBH’s Greater Boston.
The Pelosi brand, however, remains powerful, in no small part because she maintains close relations with her party’s left wing. Asked to explain the Democratic success on spending votes earlier this year, liberal stalwart Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) did not hesitate to give the party’s long-time leader all the credit. “She builds a consensus in the caucus around issues that we care deeply about,” DeLauro said in an interview last week. “We have a leader who has great strength and shares those values, and really is the essence of what leadership is about.”