Fiscal Conservatives Have Upper Hand in Fight Over 'Emergency' Spending Bill

Historians may one day look back on late April 2006 as the time when a besieged second-term Republican president and his desperate allies on Capitol Hill reversed their political fortunes.

The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress wallowing in their worst public approval ratings in over a decade. Bush’s approval has plummeted to 36%. But it’s worse for Congress: Only 22% of Americans approve of its performance.

Are Washington Republicans helpless? Certainly not.

The WSJ/NBC poll offers lawmakers a roadmap for political renewal. When asked which issue "is most important for Congress to act on before it adjourns before the election," a plurality — 39% — said they want to prohibit "Members of Congress from directing federal funds to specific projects benefiting only certain constituents." This took precedence over immigration reform (32%), extending the president’s tax cuts (10%), and even the Democrats’ banner campaign issue of lobbying reform (8%).

Despite this, a determined group of senators led by Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R.-Miss.) added approximately $15 billion in unrelated and routine pork spending to the president’s request for $94.5 billion in emergency funding for the war on terrorism and hurricane recovery. The president seized on this as an ideal opportunity to exert some much-needed leadership on spending.

On April 25 top budget officials sent the spendthrift senators a blunt warning: "If the President is ultimately presented a bill that provides more than [$94.5] billion, he will veto the bill." Veto threats don’t come any stronger.

The next day, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) drafted a supportive letter to the President, which he circulated among his colleagues. "Like you," it read, "we are seriously concerned with the overall funding level … and the numerous items that are unrelated to the Global War on Terror or emergency hurricane relief needs." Most significantly, the letter concluded with the magic words "should the final bill presented to you exceed the total amount you requested, forcing you to veto the bill, we will vote to sustain your veto."

Sessions was astonished at the response: 35 Republican senators signed on (more than enough to sustain a veto), including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R.-Va.) and Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.) and liberal Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Frist issued a timely supportive statement, noting that "the Senate’s willingness to support a veto reflects that we’re not kidding about fiscal restraint and responsibility."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) and Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) issued their own statement that further encircled the big spenders. They described the Senate bill as "a special interest shopping cart disguised as a supplemental." Boehner added that "the House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends $1 more than what the president asked for. Period." Finally, the President delivered a high-profile speech in which he reiterated the veto threat for a national audience, declaring: "the Congress needs to hear me loud and clear: if they spend more than [$94.5 billion], I will veto the bill."

These positive developments unfolded even as the Senate not only rebuffed the efforts of Senators Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) and John McCain (R.-Ariz.) to expunge the most egregious earmarks, but added additional unnecessary spending. Yet Coburn and McCain nevertheless succeeded in challenging the entrenched culture of Washington spending. Coburn’s effort to remove $500 million in Navy payments to a defense contractor for shipbuilding costs that normally would be covered by private insurance won 48 votes. His amendment to strike $700 million slated to relocate a private rail line that runs along the Mississippi coast to accommodate private casino interests attracted 47 votes. Moreover, support for every floor amendment to reduce unnecessary spending in the war supplemental exceeded the 34 votes needed to sustain a presidential veto.

Despite the overwhelming 78-20 vote to send the supplemental to a House-Senate conference, this sequence of events tips the balance in favor of a fiscally conservative final outcome.

The lesson: Decisive fiscal leadership from the White House creates its own positive synergy on Capitol Hill. It:

  • Provides the necessary political "cover" that emboldens otherwise sympathetic lawmakers to confront the powerful appropriators who drive the insatiable demand for spending.
  • Triangulates the big-spending Republicans from the rest of their party and gives the besieged minority of fiscal conservatives the leverage they need to prevail on important spending matters.
  • Reassures despondent Republican voters that at least some in their party "get it."