For House Democrats, a Trip Delayed

House Democratic leaders headed into Wednesday’s legislative session with their bags packed and buses waiting outside the U.S. Capitol, ready to depart by 1 p.m. for this year’s three-day House Democratic issues retreat in Philadelphia.

All they had to do was whip their members in line to advance three bills: a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill—which includes $13.6 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine—a continuing resolution to fund the government through Tuesday, and the Suspending Energy Imports from Russia Act, a bipartisan bill that bans oil imports from Russia and reviews its World Trade Organization status, among other sanctions. 

All three bills passed, but not without hours of unanticipated negotiations over the omnibus bill that forced Democratic leaders to cancel the first day of their issues retreat.

Early Wednesday, a handful of rank-and-file Democrats spiked party leaders’ original timeline when they approached leadership and complained that the $1.5 trillion spending bill utilized millions in unspent pandemic aid that was appropriated to their states last year. 

Frustrated with Democratic leadership’s decision to wait until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday to publish the 2,700-page omnibus bill online—giving them just hours to read the text before the original scheduled vote time—they joined forces Wednesday and threatened to shoot down a procedural vote required to advance the bill unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped the bill’s coronavirus provision.

Democratic negotiators had reshuffled some of last year’s state and local funding into the 2022 omnibus to appease the White House and strike a deal with Republicans, who spent months resisting the approval of new coronavirus relief funds when so much still has yet to be spent. 

“This deal was cut behind closed doors,” Democratic Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota told reporters Wednesday afternoon as she exited Pelosi’s office before a deal was struck. “Members found out this morning. This is completely unacceptable.” She grumbled to reporters that her state would lose $253 million in unspent COVID funds if the House were to move forward with the original version of the bill.

Eager to finish legislative business before heading to Philadelphia, Democratic leaders dragged out Wednesday morning’s procedural vote on a motion to adjourn so that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern could haggle behind closed doors with a handful of Democratic backbenchers who stood united against the omnibus bill’s COVID funding provision.

Only after Pelosi announced in a Dear Colleague letter that she’d scrapped COVID funding from the bill did she win enough votes to narrowly pass the omnibus bill in two parts. One portion included $782 billion in defense-related spending and passed in a 361-68 vote. The other included $730 billion to fund the rest of the bill’s spending proposals, and passed in a 260-171 vote, with one voting present.

Even after hours of delay, Democratic leaders who drafted the bill this week—and the rules that accompanied it—feigned optimism Wednesday afternoon once they took stock of the administrative reshuffling that would have to take place. “Let me say to the members that things are going exactly according to plan. Everything is beautiful in its own way,” McGovern said on the House floor Wednesday afternoon before announcing he would withdraw the original rule and meet with his committee colleagues to convene a new one. 

Now that the continuing resolution funds the government through Tuesday, the Senate will have more time to debate before a government shutdown. Pelosi took pains Wednesday afternoon to remind reporters—and her own members—that the clock is ticking before funding runs out.

“Let’s grow up about this,” she said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference when asked by multiple reporters why so many members of her conference felt blindsided by the COVID appropriations included in the omnibus spending bill, which also reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act and preserves the Hyde Amendment, among other legislative provisions.

“We have a deadline,” she added.

Pelosi lambasted reporters who questioned her about some House Democrats’ frustration with the bill’s late release, and said that compromise was required to advance the omnibus bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. “You think I could’ve gotten something in the bill as speaker of the House? No, because it takes 60 votes in the Senate.”

Wednesday’s infighting over COVID funding highlights the legislative hiccups that often accompany omnibus spending bills, which require bipartisan support to avert a government shutdown. “There’s always a blow up at some point during the process,” Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal—one of the House Democrats who opposed the omnibus bill’s original COVID provision—told reporters Wednesday evening. 

Long before Democratic infighting over COVID funding unfolded, for example, some Democratic and Republican members said they took issue with the defense-related portion of the omnibus bill.

“We have to have an honest discussion about the size and enormity of our defense budget, and more accountability within the Pentagon,” McGovern, who voted against the defense portion of the omnibus, told The Dispatch Wednesday morning. 

Others walked into Wednesday’s legislative session unsure how they’d vote on that part of the bill. Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman—a member of the Progressive Caucus—said in an interview Wednesday morning that he was “concerned” with the defense spending figure negotiators settled on because it ended up being “much more than the president even asked for.” He ended up voting against the defense-related provision too.

“These are the kind of bills where you talk until the last minute,” Bowman said of both the omnibus and the Russia sanctions bill.

Last-minute impulses played out in the drafting processes that preceded all three bills, including the Suspending Energy Imports from Russia Act, which the White House reportedly tried to delay this weekend over concerns that banning Russian oil would cause American gas prices to spike even more. Pelosi pushed forward with introducing the bill anyway, and Biden issued an executive order the following day banning Russian energy imports. The bill passed the House in a 414-17 vote.

Also on Wednesday, the House introduced a $15.6 billion standalone coronavirus relief bill that includes $8.6 billion in unused coronavirus relief funds, none of which would dip into state or local coronavirus coffers. The figure is far below the $22.5 billion the White House had initially requested, but it’s still unlikely to win enough Republican votes to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold after it likely passes in the House next week.

In the meantime, Democratic leaders are projecting optimism about the fact that they were finally able to advance the omnibus beyond the lower chamber, even if doing so required some concessions to their own members. “For the first time in a long time, I believe we show just how government can work for working people once again and to achieve the betterment of humankind,” DeLauro said.

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