Dec. 16, 2014

A Senate Stocking Stuffer

Trillions in spending that somehow disappointed both parties.

Congressional passage of the $1.1 trillion CRomnibus (part omnibus, part continuing resolution) package last weekend may have prevented a government shutdown, but it created a variety of divisions between and among Republicans and Democrats that could flare up in grand style in the next Congress.

The package funds most of the government through fiscal year 2015, pulling together 11 appropriations bills that cover many areas, except the Department of Homeland Security, which is funded only until Feb. 27. Much of the spending adheres to budget caps put in place last year, with additional emergency spending that falls outside the caps – including $64 billion for overseas military operations such as the fight against ISIL and $5.4 billion to combat Ebola.

Republicans achieved their objectives in some areas. The Dodd-Frank financial regulation law was partially relaxed to allow banks to directly engage in derivatives trading. Some school nutrition standards pushed by First Lady Michelle Obama were also rolled back, in large part because school districts are having serious trouble complying with the new regulations – not to mention the near-mutiny among students. Another provision loosens contribution limits for national political parties. The Democrats balked at this provision, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calling it “egregious,” but they’ll be perfectly happy with it when leftist one-percenters pour out their money for the 2016 election.

Democrats also won some things in the bill as well. ObamaCare funding remains intact at current levels, despite the long history of GOP threats to defund it. The Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions, was renewed, but since ObamaCare calls for funding of abortions that amendment remains pretty much moot.

One bright spot for free enterprise was in the extension of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which puts off for another year a bureaucratic free-for-all that would blitz online retailers with new taxes, regulations and paperwork. If Congress has any sense at all, it will enact a clean, stand-alone extension of the act in January.

There was rancor among Democrats over passage of the bill because of its rollback of Dodd-Frank and the relaxed political party funding. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) led the charge against the CRomnibus from the liberal side, but she was swamped by the larger Democrat contingent eager to pass the bill. Her actions may not have amounted to much, but her popularity saw a boost. She is increasingly considered a viable alternative presidential candidate to Hillary Clinton, complicating the latter’s second White House run.

Warren found an unusual ally in her fight against the spending package in Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, if for an entirely different reason. Along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Cruz hoped to derail the package by introducing a symbolic point-of-order vote condemning the unconstitutionality of Barack Obama’s executive action on illegal aliens.

“If you believe President Obama’s executive order was unconstitutional, vote yes,” Cruz told his colleagues. “If you think the president’s executive order is constitutional, vote no.” Well, 74 senators believed the latter – or at least wouldn’t admit the former – among them the full Republican leadership.

As he did with his box-canyon shutdown strategy last year, Cruz managed to draw significant ire from his GOP colleagues. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “Suffice it to say, I’m not happy with the strategy [Cruz] has come up with. I think it’s totally counterproductive.” Cruz has been accused of grandstanding for the sake of his own popularity before, but many conservatives also praised him for standing his ground.

Did Cruz’s actions cause more trouble than they were worth? The temporary funding of DHS means the immigration issue will be revisited early next year anyway. Cruz and Lee were faulted for outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid’s pushing cloture on a series of stalled nominees because the procedural vote allowed Reid to turn to other matters. That’s a stretch, considering that executive and judicial nominations were going to be on the calendar anyway at some point between now and the end of the session. Remember, Reid didn’t trigger the nuclear option for nothing.

The real reason that Cruz’s actions caused such a stir is probably best encapsulated by the fact that senators’ weekend holiday plans had to be put on hold. But as Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw wrote, “The fact that any of them had to show up on Saturday and couldn’t head home from work two weeks before Christmas and stay there until early January isn’t exactly tugging at my heartstrings.”

Republican and Democrat leaders in the House and Senate must be suffering tennis elbow after all the self-congratulatory pats on the back for passing the CRomnibus. Republican voters may be asking themselves, though, why the GOP went for a long-term budget deal when they could have just passed a 60-day continuing resolution and negotiated a full budget package from a position of strength in January.

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