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August 01, 2013 10:02 AM From the Oracular to the Vernacular

By Ed Kilgore

So the THUD (Transportation, Housing and Urban Development) appropriations bill for FY 2014 was yanked from the House floor yesterday, leaving the programs and services funded through that bill probably at the mercy of whatever omnibus appropriations measure emerges after the schedule Fall Fiscal Fight. No big deal, right? It’s been many years since Congress enacted all its appropriations bills on time. Why is this different?

Well, it’s not the absence of final passage on THUD that’s the news; the GOP leadership can’t find a plausible majority for it in the House, which has been functioning more or less efficiently as an alternative conservative universe where certain collisions with the Senate majority or the White House are never a bar to legislative action. Like the farm bill, which provided another recent fiasco, THUD reflects internal problems in the GOP that can’t be perpetually ignored. Beneath the leaden collapse of THUD, TPM’s Brian Beutler hears the sound of many chickens finally coming home to roost:

It might look like a minor hiccup, or a symbolic error. But it spells doom for the party’s near-term budget strategy and underscores just how bogus the party’s broader agenda really is and has been for the last four years….
Republicans have refused to negotiate away their budget differences with Democrats, and have instead instructed their appropriators to use the House GOP budget as a blueprint for funding the government beyond September.
Like all recent GOP budgets, this year’s proposes lots of spending on defense and security, at the expense of all other programs. Specifically, it sets the total pool of discretionary dollars at sequestration levels, then funnels money from thinly stretched domestic departments (like Transportation and HUD) to the Pentagon and a few other agencies. But that’s all the budget says. It doesn’t say how to allocate the dollars, nor does it grapple in any way with the possibility that cutting domestic spending so profoundly might be unworkable. It’s an abstraction.
Indeed, Paul Ryan’s entire reputation rests upon these kinds of abstractions. His budgets imagine huge cuts to Medicaid and food stamps and Medicare and so on, but they have no binding force. His allure to the conservative movement as a vice presidential nominee was that he’d be uniquely suited to turn these abstractions into reality.
But many close Congress watchers — and indeed many Congressional Democrats — have long suspected that their votes for Ryan’s budgets were a form of cheap talk. That Republicans would chicken out if it ever came time to fill in the blanks. Particularly the calls for deep but unspecified domestic discretionary spending cuts.

And so you have a major appropriations bill whose ostensible sponsor, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, clearly hates. His committee is also at loggerheads over other bills, and in the Senate, Republican defections on Approps are helping funding bills with much, much higher spending levels get to the floor.

And so Republicans who theoretically favor the Ryan Budget’s “path to a balanced budget” can’t support its implications when the oracular is translated into the vernacular. And since they also privately bridle at the impact of sequestration, particularly on Pentagon spending, they are stuck, right on the brink of high-stakes fights over spending levels in September. It’s not a good sign, as Beutler concludes:

[I]t raises much bigger, existential questions for the Republicans as a national party. If they can’t execute key elements of their governing agenda, even just to establish their negotiating positions opposite the Democrats, what can they do, and what argument can they possibly make for controlling more (or all) of Washington?

No wonder some conservatives want to make the debt limit/appropriations battle this fall “about” Obamacare. At least they know how to say “No!” in unison.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent points to today’s Senate cloture vote on its own THUD funding bill as a test of how deep GOP disarray on fiscal issues has become. If enough Republican senators defect to get the bill to the floor, Mitch McConnell will join John Boehner as a leader who has lost control of his troops.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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