Appropriations Bills Continue To Collapse In The House

House Republicans' plans to hold the line on federal spending and maintaining the cuts demanded by sequestration were thrown into doubt this week. Leaders abruptly pulled a transportation spending bill off the floor, prompting a rare public statement from the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee to lash out at the decision.

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A key job of Congress is to pass bills that fund the government - appropriations bills. And in the past 24 hours, both the House and the Senate has seen their housing and transportation spending bills blow up. The reason? The same one that's been tying Washington in knots: a fundamental disagreement over how to cut government spending and by how much. NPR's Tamara Keith has our story from the Capitol.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Like so many things, today's drama can be traced back to the summer of 2011. That's when Congress and the president resolved the debt ceiling showdown by agreeing to lock in significant spending cuts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This compromise guarantees more than $2 trillion in deficit reduction. It's an important first step to ensuring that, as a nation, we live within our means.

KEITH: Those cuts are now quite real. And as Congress tries to map out how it will fund the government for the year ahead, figuring out how to incorporate those cuts has become a problem.

SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: This shows exactly why Washington is not working.

KEITH: Barbara Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. The fiery Democrat from Maryland had just watched her committee's transportation and housing bill fall to a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor.

MIKULSKI: We had a bill that would have put people to work, fix bridges and highways, improve public safety. It would have gotten America moving. It would have gotten America working. And (unintelligible) should do the same.

KEITH: The spending bill was drafted in close collaboration with a Republican senator, and a number of Republicans supported it in committee before joining the filibuster on the floor.

The fatal flaw? It didn't comply with the Budget Control Act passed back in 2011, the one that hatched the sequester spending cuts. Democrats decided those numbers weren't realistic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he and his fellow Republicans had to take a stand.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We need to indicate we're going to keep our word around here. This was a word made on a bipartisan basis just two years ago. The president signed it. It's the law. And we think it's important to convey to the American people we take our commitments seriously.

KEITH: On the other side of the Capitol dome, many in the House seemed to be reaching the same conclusions as Senate Democrats. Steny Hoyer is the minority whip.

REPRESENTATIVE STENY HOYER: Sequestration and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts must be brought to an end. That is Hal Rogers, not Steny Hoyer. And that is why we see ourselves in the throes of the continuation of a tantrum.

KEITH: Hal Rogers is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Hoyer was reading from a statement Rogers released after House leaders pulled his committee's transportation bill from the floor without a vote. Rogers dodged reporters' questions today, and instead let his statement speak for itself. And that statement was scathing. He said the bill didn't have enough support to pass. Word is it was dozens of votes short with Democrats, conservative Republicans and more moderate Republicans all balking at it.

In a statement, Rogers said that the House had, quote, "declined to proceed on implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago." That budget incorporated the sequester cuts, restoring some funding to defense programs by making even larger cuts to domestic programs like transportation, housing and education. Again, Steny Hoyer.

HOYER: He couldn't get his own party to support his bill.

KEITH: For his part, House Speaker John Boehner insists the votes were there, and that it was just a scheduling problem. Still, he says he understands the frustration of Rogers and others.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It's August, and members have been at it for a while. We got 435 people trying to come to an agreement. Sometimes they get a bit frustrated. They got a little frustrated yesterday.

KEITH: All of this sets up what is increasingly looking to be an ugly fall when Congress will be forced to deal with this simmering spending fight head on. There will be just nine working days for the House in September before a possible government shutdown. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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