The Center Won Thursday Night. Can It Win Again in the 114th Congress?
Despite griping from left and right, the odd coalition that passed the omnibus bill could form again next year to tackle tough challenges.
As messy and uncertain as Thursday's nail-biting vote to keep the government running was, amid a push for confrontation from the farthest ideological ends of both parties, a dynamic formed that could be the key to legislative success in the 114th Congress: The center prevailed.
As Sen. Ted Cruz and House conservatives demanded Republicans challenge the president over immigration and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren insisted Democrats stand firm against Wall Street and big money, an odd coalition formed in the middle to pass a sweeping appropriations bill no one loved, but everyone recognized must pass.
In other words, Congress legislated.
The model could be difficult to replicate, but with a slew of must-pass measures awaiting in 2015—including a debt-ceiling increase, a cash-starved highway trust fund, and a host of expiring programs—it could prove to be a prototype for how to successfully bridge the partisan divide.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a key negotiator of the spending package, said that despite grousing on both sides, enough members came together to compromise on a bill that just enough members on both sides could stomach.
"I think more and more people realized, 'Wait a minute, what are we doing here? We're shutting down the government? What are we getting for it?'" Rogers said. "And I don't think they could think of anything they were getting for it."
The bill's success in the House, which surprised even some of the parties' leaders and key vote-counters, was a noted change from 2013, when Speaker John Boehner cowed to the will of his conservatives and shut down the government in opposition to President Obama's health care law.
This time, Obama and Boehner were whipping votes on the same side of the issue, teaming with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and an assortment of other strange bedfellows to herald the spending bill to ultimate passage.
"Tonight, working across the aisle collaboratively, against the fringes—well, excuse me, the more vocal, more ideological wings of our party—is good for both parties," Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly said after the vote. "That is a welcome message for voters. They want to see that, and we don't lose a thing."
The omnibus spending bill now heads to the Senate, where a similar coalition of the willing waits to pass it. Reid, who long ago undercut Pelosi's strategy on the omnibus, will be joined by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in whipping members in favor of the bill, while senators as diverse as Patrick Leahy and Lindsey Graham are pushing their colleagues to support the omnibus as well.
As in the House, liberal Senate Democrats like Sens. Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders have united against the bill, putting themselves in the same camp as Sens. Cruz, Tom Coburn, and Mike Lee—though for decidedly different reasons. But the measure will need just 60 votes to move through the Senate and even Coburn has said he'll allow the omnibus to move forward. The majority of Senate Democrats who, like Warren, opposed the bill's Dodd-Frank provision resigned themselves to the fact that if the House wasn't able to do anything about it, neither would they.
At best, those on the far left and the far right can delay the spending bill, but a vote is inevitable and it appears clear that the middle majority will pass it.
The next two years will not be easy for either party and Congress will be called upon numerous times to approve vital legislation on a deadline. McConnell and Boehner recognize that although they will both control majorities beginning next month, there's still a Democrat in the White House. They won't be able to ignore the other party if they hope to get anything of real substance done over the next two years.
This is what McConnell has been talking about: returning to regular order and allowing the committees to do their work. The only reason that the omnibus was able to pass the House, and is likely to pass the Senate, is that it is a carefully crafted compromise bill. Appropriators, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, spent months haggling over every last detail before presenting the package to members. The final omnibus bill has the fingerprints of not just a few members of leadership, but dozens of members from all sides of the political spectrum.
"I believe the biggest threat that we face is gridlock, deadlock, and the way that we paralyze ourselves by making the perfect the enemy of the good," a visibly angry Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said during a statement on the Senate floor late Thursday night, referring to those in her own party who reflexively oppose the bill. "No piece of legislation is perfect.... I wanted to open the debate today to talk about how we tried to govern on a bipartisan basis. We reached across the aisle and we reached across the Capitol dome."
Similarly, some House Republicans and Democrats rejected their leaders' entreaties to vote for the bill because they were frustrated with the process. Rep. Dennis Ross, a member of the GOP whip team, said that resulted in a tenuous vote in the short term, but could produce a return to some kind of regular order to avoid similar near-failures in the future.
"We were definitely tempting fate when we put it on the floor, and I think we were prepared that we would have to do a CR to replace it if it didn't pass," Ross said.
Even after all of that work on the omnibus, there were still detractors. That's an inevitability Boehner and McConnell will have to accept, especially if conservatives stay their course and if Pelosi and her allies keep their word, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky put it Thursday, not to accept tradeoffs to compromise their principles.
But because of the bipartisan work, leaders in both parties were able break the pattern of the last few years, ignoring rather than capitulating to the most ideologically unbending in their conferences.
In his final speech before colleagues on the Senate floor after losing his seat to a conservative hardliner who opposed the omnibus in the House Thursday, Sen. Mark Pryor warned his colleagues against moving further away from the center. "The rules aren't the problem around here. We're the problem. All 100 of us," Pryor said. "Hyperpartisanship has gotten the best of us."¦ E Pluribus Unum actually means something: Out of many, one. We have many differing viewpoints, many philosophies, many priorities, so we have the Pluribus part down. No, the challenge comes with the Unum."
The coalition around the final omnibus spending bill is evidence that that kind of unity is difficult, but possible, if leaders are willing to look to find the moderate solution for the most members, to, as Reid put it earlier this week, "take yes for an answer." Members believe their leaders are learning.
"This," Republican Rep. Tom Cole said, "is a majority that is maturing and getting more sophisticated, who knows how to take half a loaf and keep moving."