For all the talk in Washington about “tea partiers” and “liberty-lovers” being the extremists, yesterday’s fight proves this characterization wrong. Conservatives, tea partiers, and liberty-loving representatives like Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) worked with liberal Democrats like Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) to stop gimmicks that were being played by the GOP leadership, House Armed Services, and House Appropriations Committee members. While their efforts failed in close votes, their efforts are admirable and prove that there are definitely areas where conservatives and liberals SHOULD and MUST work together against the establishment of both parties.
An unorthodox partnership between an ultra-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat is threatening House Republican plans to fund the government.
Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat running for Senate, are joining forces to block a series of Pentagon spending increases that underpin the GOP’s spending strategy this year.
If Van Hollen can convince all his Democratic colleagues to get on board, and Mulvaney can muster enough conservative votes, they could jeopardize a $38 billion Pentagon boost that GOP leaders used to woo support from defense hawks. The duo’s first try was a big enough threat that leaders abruptly pulled a military construction and VA spending bill off the floor when it wasn’t clear they could defeat it. It ultimately failed when 19 defense-minded Democrats bucked their party and rejected the amendment.
But the two are going to keep trying to take down the extra Pentagon money, which is funneled through the so-called overseas contingency operations account, or OCO, an emergency war fund that critics call a budgeting farce. Van Hollen plans to talk to liberal defectors, and Mulvaney feels confident he can count on more than 25 Republicans to stick with him.
“If appropriations come across with any OCO money hidden in it, I’ll do everything I can to strip it,” Mulvaney said in a Thursday interview. “It’s a slush fund and gimmick, and our own budget called it a backdoor trick last year.”
Defense funds were supposed to be frozen below caps laid out in a 2011 deficit-reduction law. But GOP leadership planned to dole out an extra $38 billion for the Pentagon using OCO, which isn’t subject to the caps. That extra defense spending was the primary reason Republican defense hawks backed leadership’s spending plans in the first place. Hawks could withdraw support if the boost was winnowed, making it hard for Republicans to muster enough votes to pass defense-related budget bills.
That, in turn, would be a major blow to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who want to show they can govern effectively and fund the government in an orderly fashion.
After their first attempt failed Thursday evening, 191-229, Rogers told POLITICO it foreshadowed good news for appropriators crafting spending bill using OCO funds.
“I feel good about it — those were pretty strong votes,” he said.
But Mulvaney and Van Hollen, and many far-right conservatives and Democrats alike, think leaders have gone too far using the OCO account.
“A lot of people who voted for the budget, did so despite objections of the OCO budget,” Mulvaney said. “Leadership were able to twist some arms to get people to vote for the budget, but given the opportunity to go in and make some changes, people are for that.”
Mulvaney and Van Hollen plan to propose amendments to strike every penny of OCO money not used for war from here on out, including in Defense and State department bills.
A GOP source familiar with the process said even if their amendments are adopted, leadership could add the money back at a later time when the House conferences with the Senate, for example. They’ve used similar tactics to circumvent Mulvaney in the past.
The Mulvaney-Van Hollen duo’s test vote Thursday night showed they still have some supoprt work to do. The three Mulvaney-Van Hollen amendments would have eliminate $530 million of OCO money that’s supposed to be used for construction projects on military bases and installations.
Mulvaney swung 27 conservative Republican votes to back the amendment, including a handful who voted for the GOP budget that initially gave the Pentagon the multibillion-dollar increase.
The bigger issue is whether Van Hollen can get enough Democrats to back their cause.
He could not Thursday night; several Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee voted with Republicans to keep the extra funds.
That came despite an effort from Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who joined Van Hollen circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter, urging the left to “eliminate OCO abuse.”
Democrats have different concerns than their Republican colleagues: They want the spending caps lifted for both defense and domestic programs like health and education. Fiscal hawks like Mulvaney are very skeptical of plans to raise spending without offsets they deem worthy, like entitlement reforms.
Yet, the two agree on one thing: They really don’t like the OCO raise.
“It’s one of the places where I think the Republicans and Democrats agree more than you think: They want good governance,” Mulvaney said of the partnership.
Van Hollen said on Thursday that he hopes the amendment will force Republicans to reckon with the spending caps.
“This is a come-to-reality-now [moment] so we can have a serious discussion about how we deal with sequester,” he said. “They’re in fantasyland if they think this will provide an escape hatch.”
On Wednesday night, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), a conservative who is against the amendment, circulated an impassioned email asking colleagues to vote against the provision if they care about stopping terrorism.
“Cutting this money means our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will have worse facilities overseas,” he wrote. “If you think our troops should have good facilities when they are deployed overseas, deterring China, fighting Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, and guarding against Iranian missiles, than I urge you to vote against the Van Hollen and Mulvaney amendments.”
He listed projects that would lose funds: a fuel depot in the Horn of Africa, “where our Special Operators launch their attacks against al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” an airfield in Niger where the military fights Boko Haram; and a Navy facility in Southwest Asia that is “vital to prevent aggressive actions from China.”
Mulvaney wrote back in his own email: “This is not money for the war effort. Period.”
The letters continued Thursday, with top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee circulating additional pleas to kill the amendment.
It worked this time. But if Team Mulvaney-Van Hollen have anything to say about it, next time will be different.
LLPH scored all three amendments in our scorecard. You can see the roll call votes here:
We hope that they and others will keep up the fight against these type of gimmicks. If your representative voted yes, thank them. If they voted no, encourage them to improve their ways.