By Laurie Kellman
WASHINGTON — She’s an outspoken feminist and former social worker. He’s a cigar-smoking Kentucky lawyer.
But Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Rep. Harold Rogers have big things in common as they steer the House and Senate Appropriations committees toward a spending plan for the rest of the year that eases the bite of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts.
Their tiny domain is the only place in a bitterly divided Congress where bipartisan negotiation thrives, however uncomfortably.
As their bill winds toward Senate and House approval, the veteran lawmakers who have a combined 68 years of service on Capitol Hill are hoping their exercise is instructive to the dozens of colleagues, many elected since 2010, who frown on compromise.
“If they succeed, perhaps in their own way they will have demonstrated to others in this Congress that this is about conciliation, it’s about setting priorities, it’s about cutting waste,” said Jim Dyer, a longtime appropriations aide who’s now a lobbyist. “It’s about doing your job as opposed to getting yourself so wrapped around the ideological axle that you can’t accomplish anything.”
Mikulski and Rogers are the pain managers of the nation’s fiscal difficulties, the two individuals most responsible for averting a government shutdown March 27 and taking some of the edge off the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
They can’t do anything, though, without the agreement of Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate committee, and New York Rep. Nita Lowy, the senior Democrat on the House committee.
“We are working well together, now,” Shelby said.
The headache of sequester is here to stay for at least six months, until the end of the current budget year Sept. 30. View it has the hangover from Congress’s inability to bully itself into a deficit-cutting deal that might require voters to give up some of their tax cuts or government benefits.
The job of writing a spending plan for the rest of the year that achieves the $85 billion in cuts fell to two political opposites of the same generation who share decades of budget experience, a determination to solve the immediate problem and a grim regard for who’s to blame for the government-by-crisis that has ruled Washington since the 2010 election.
“We think the sequester is a stupid way to do business. It’s the coward’s way out,” Rogers, 75, said during an interview this past week in his sunlight-filled corner office just off the House floor. He noted that the bulk of lawmakers who arrived in Washington in the past two elections have no experience with Congress as it’s supposed to run.
It’s been a dozen years since the House and Senate have passed all of the government spending bills individually, the products of intense bipartisan negotiations and, yes, compromise. The House calls that process regular order; sequester represents the ultimate failure of it.
As Mikulski and Rogers labor to minimize the sequester’s pain, they’re also trying to expose colleagues to the value of the Capitol’s traditional ways.
“We’re in an education phase now,” said Rogers, a 32-year House veteran.
The temporary spending bill is the duo’s first collaboration, carried out in daily and sometimes hourly phone calls and meetings in either Rogers’ ornate office or across the Capitol in the historic committee suite that Mikulski has nicknamed “the mother ship.”
After 24 years in the Senate, she’s the first woman to lead the committee, which was controlled for decades by bulls such as Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and, most recently, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
The committees’ control over where the government spends money gives them outsized authority in Washington, even though that power has been shorn somewhat recently by the Congress-wide ban on letting lawmakers pick special projects back home for federal money. In the competition for those projects, often known as earmarks, it was most often the appropriations chairmen who picked the winners and losers.
This is Mikulski’s first test as committee head. It’s one she subtly suggested might teach her colleagues how to do their jobs in difficult circumstances.
“This is a temporary tool to use during a fiscal crisis to have smart government and try and get us a little bit beyond ultimatum and brinkmanship politics,” said Mikulski, 76. Of Rogers, she added: “We’ve enjoyed talking with each other. We haven’t always enjoyed what the other has to say.”
The government-wide spending bill would cover the day-to-day budgets for every agency. Rogers and Mikulski are laboring to shuffle the money in a way that gives agencies more flexibility to deal with mandatory across-the-board cuts — 5 percent for most domestic programs, 8 percent for the military.
They are working out different priorities. While Rogers focused on giving the Pentagon relief from a crunch in readiness accounts, Mikulski sought to minimize cuts in domestic programs such as food aid for pregnant women and their children and health research.
The Senate and House are expected to pass their combined effort this coming week, preventing a government shutdown when current funding runs out March 27.
Their work and very public comments about it exemplify a growing sentiment among Congress’ elders that the cut-it-or-shut-it mentality that fueled the tea party wave of 2010, flipping the House to a GOP majority and ousting several veteran dealmakers, has contributed to the nation’s post-recession uncertainties. Evidence is everywhere that the veterans who remain are out of patience with colleagues who seem to see compromise as a dirty word, no matter the topic.
“I am not a sixth-grader,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., fumed at Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a freshman and tea party favorite, when he asked her what limits on the First Amendment’s free speech protections she would support while attacking her proposed ban assault weapons as an unconstitutional limit on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it,” she snapped. “Just know I’ve been here a long time.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested on the Senate floor that Kentucky tea party favorite Rand Paul, elected to the Senate in 2010, had his facts wrong on President Barack Obama’s drone program and was guilty of stunt politicking with his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to lead the CIA.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested that Congress should pick better battles than another one waged by Cruz — trying to attach a repeal of Obama’s health care law to the spending bill Mikulski and Rogers are writing.
“Trying to put ‘Obamacare’ on this vehicle risks shutting down the government,” Boehner said at his weekly Capitol briefing. “That’s not what our goal is. Our goal is to reduce spending.”