By Rosalind S. Helderman
GOP leaders in the House were working feverishly Thursday afternoon to persuade conservatives in their own party to reverse their opposition to a short-term funding measure identical or nearly identical to one they rejected less than a day ago.
At a 90-minute closed-door meeting for House Republicans, Speaker John A. Boehner (R) told his members that they needed to vote for the bill, which was unexpectedly defeated on the House floor Wednesday evening, or he would be forced to agree to a Democratic demand to drop a cut to an auto-company loan program designed to offset new disaster relief spending. That route would result in higher spending and a political win for the Democratic opposition, he argued.
"There's a lot of discussion about where we go--we'll see what leadership decides," said House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) as he left the meeting.
But Rogers said he believed Republican support for the bill was growing. "I'm very optimistic," he said.
Despite the internal wrangling, the speaker issued a blunt assurance that no government shutdown would occur and that lawmakers would reach agreement before funding for the government set by the measure expires on Sept. 30.
"There's no threat of a government shutdown. Let's just get this out," Boehner said.
"I understood what the risk was yesterday," he said. "But why not put the bill on the floor and let the members speak?"
With no resolution of the issue at mid-afternoon--and House leaders still working to come up with small tweaks to the bill that could win support--the chamber appeared headed to another cliff-hanger evening vote that will test the ability of top Republican leaders to wrangle their own members.
"Its Groundhog Day--we're all hurrying up and waiting again," said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), who opposed the bill Wednesday night and said he continued to be concerned that the $1.043 trillion spending rate it would set for the fiscal year that begins Set. 30 would be too high.
"We're continuing to spend more than we take in," he said. "But we can't lose sight of the war here. This is a small skirmish."
Huizenga wanted to hear more from House leaders before deciding how to vote.
Under pressure not to surrender the idea that Congress should pair higher spending for disasters with cuts elsewhere, one option under consideration was to attempt to offset spending for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a cut to a different program than the auto loans Democrats say create jobs.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that Democrats believed disaster funds were for emergencies and no offset would be acceptable to her members.
"I think I answered that question: there has never been an offset for disaster assistance," Pelosi said when asked whether there might be any offset that House Democrats would back.
Several Republicans said Boehner did not seem eager to set the spending rate lower than $1.043 trillion--a spending cap agreed to in the bitterly contested August debt deal--despite the urging of many conservatives.
And, regardless, House leaders indicated they wanted to forge ahead with a vote Thursday rather than letting the issue spill into another day and threatening a week-long recess planned for next week because of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
"It has to be tonight, so we can't tweak around for too long," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y).
Boehner acknowledged the difficulties in cobbling together a majority in the House, caught between tea party fiscal hawks who want to slash government funding at every turn and Democrats eager to exploit Republican division.
"Welcome to my world," he said of the conundrum.
Boehner's task now, he said, is to convince his own members that opposing the bill because it includes too much spending actually strengthens the hands of Democrats who want to spend even more.
"They can vote no, but what they're in essence doing is voting to spend more money. Because that's exactly what will happen," he said.
While it is widely expected that the parties will eventually reach a compromise to avoid a shutdown, Wednesday's 230-to-195 defeat for House Republicans showed what can happen what can happen when the GOP majority operates with no more than minimal Democratic support.
The failure of the bill was the result of a new solidarity among Democrats on funding issues and old divisions among Republicans on spending reductions.
The unexpected breakdown bodes poorly for ongoing budget negotiations between the parties. Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said a week ago that he planned to join with Republicans in support of the measure. Under pressure from his party to show unity, he voted no on Wednesday.
GOP leaders were unable to overcome objections from Democrats who believed the bill did not do enough for disaster victims and from conservative Republicans who wanted to use the measure to cut government spending more deeply.
To pass a bill, House leaders will have to rewrite the measure to appease either Democrats or the more conservative wing of their own party. They must send a bill to the Senate for approval before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Otherwise, the government will shut down.
The temporary measure is necessary because the House and Senate have failed to agree on appropriations bills to fund government for the whole fiscal year. The stopgap is designed to buy time for negotiations to continue when the fiscal year ends.
Boehner and other GOP leaders were confident they could muscle the bill over to the Senate despite protests from both sides of the aisle. But the loss was the latest illustration of how Boehner and his lieutenants simply do not command 218 votes -- the magic number for a victory in the House -- on even such basic legislative matters as a temporary funding resolution to keep government agencies functioning.
Republican leaders shrugged off the embarassing defeat as an example of their willingness to let the House work its will, something Boehner pledged to do just before he won the speaker's gavel in November 2010.
"Change like this is hard. We'll find a way forward so that we can reflect expectations that taxpayers have that we are going to begin to start spending their money more prudently," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said afterward.
Republican leaders shrugged off the embarassing defeat as an example of their willingness to let the House work its will, something Boehner pledged to do a year ago on the verge of winning the speaker's gavel in November 2010.
"This is the sausage factory. People who sell sausage don't want you to see behind the doors. But with television and the media like you, the people see the real thing," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Rogers, a legislative veteran of more than three decades.
Rogers said he thought Democrats would provide the difference, but once they backed off, it became clear the bill would fail.
At issue for conservative Republicans was their leadership's decision to set spending in the bill at a rate of $1.043 trillion for the year, the level agreed to in the bitterly contested August deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
But many Republicans consider the figure a cap and believed their party should push for deeper cuts at every turn. Fifty had signed a letter last week urging deeper cuts, and 48 voted against the measure.
"There has to be that moment where we say "no, this is not what is necessary, and we're going to have to work for something better,' " said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who opposed the bill.
All but six Democrats, meanwhile, opposed the bill because it offset $1.5 billion of $3.65 billion in disaster relief funding with a cut to a program that lends money to automakers to encourage the production of energy-efficient cars.
They believed the program created jobs and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, strained by repeated natural disasters, needs more funding. Ten Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate last week to approve a separate bill to spend $6.9 billion on disaster relief efforts over the course of the year.
FEMA's disaster relief fund, which reimburses local governments and individuals for repairing storm damage, is running low after a number of tornadoes, fires and major storms. The White House has said the fund needs $500 million immediately and will need $4.6 billion for the 2012 fiscal year.
"That is an absolute bottom line," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) "We're not going to negotiate something in July and let people renege in September."