Omnibus Spat Spills Into View as Democrats Ready Counteroffer

House Democrats on Wednesday were preparing a counteroffer after they formally rejected Republicans' opening proposal on the largest outstanding policy and funding sticking points in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill.

Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York said she expected the Democrats' reply to be finalized by the end of the day. "We've been working on it all day," Lowey told reporters in the early afternoon, "and when it's complete they will get it."

The GOP proposal fell in the Democrats' court late Tuesday, when Speaker Paul D. Ryan called Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with a pitch.

During the 30-minute conversation, the Wisconsin Republican reportedly urged Pelosi, of California, to consider the offer, given the short timeline before government funding expires on Dec. 11.

A senior Republican aide explained the party's initial offer, articulated to Pelosi by Ryan, was typical of final negotiations on a catchall spending bill and that it was designed as an opening salvo for final debate, not a be-all, end-all.

But Democrats slammed the proposed policy riders as nonstarters and a signal Republicans were not prepared to negotiate in good faith.

A senior Democratic aide said the GOP's proposal included more than 30 “poison pill” add-ons dealing with the environment, financial regulations and Syrian refugee legislation — each toxic to Democrats. The staff member said the Republican proposal was not the product of negotiations led by appropriators, and it was instead crafted by aides to Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Criticism Erupts

On Wednesday, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York said he was "nauseous and livid" over McConnell's insistence on including a policy rider in the omnibus that would eliminate caps on the amount of money political parties can spend in coordination with candidates.

"No Democrat should support this rider," Israel told CQ Roll Call.

A major frustration on the part of Democrats is they thought Republicans — and Ryan — were committed to bipartisan negotiations.

“Everything that we thought would have movement or that was still an open question, they just negated,” Pelosi said of Republican leaders to members of the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning, according to a senior Democratic aide. “This is similar to what they did on refugees. We were in good faith, we were together and all the rest — and then, they took a turn.”

“When all four corners were working together, I had hoped we could conclude the process in a day or two," Lowey added later in the afternoon. "After the offer was sent over from Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell, this was not a real offer."

Meanwhile, Ryan's spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, insisted Ryan was not just working with McConnell. Rather, Strong said, Ryan was proposing to Pelosi an omnibus negotiated by appropriators, in keeping with his pledge to empower committee chairmen to take the lead in major legislative pursuits.

"The proposal was an Appropriations Committee offer, constructed by the Appropriations Committee. The speaker supported it, but he's deferring to Chairman Rogers," Strong told CQ Roll Call Wednesday morning.

The GOP’s initial offer did not touch most of the thousands of smaller, line-by-line agreements on funding levels and bill language struck by appropriations staff in recent weeks, according to two sources with knowledge of the proposal.

Weeks of Negotiations

The he-said, she-said fracas came after weeks of closed-door talks among the Republican and Democratic staff of the 12 House and Senate appropriations subcommittees. Aides handed up the most contentious unresolved issues to the front offices of the committees during the Thanksgiving recess, allowing senior staff and the top four appropriators to kick off private rounds of high-level horse-trading, eventually with the input of the party leadership.

What's unusual this time around is how the skirmish has spilled into public view. Such last-minute fights are typically contained to the leadership offices to avoid public leaks that could endanger the final product.

The scuffle makes it that much harder for negotiators to wrap up talks on the $1.1 trillion bill when current spending authority (PL 114-53) expires.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., on Tuesday said he hoped to file the catchall agreement on Dec. 7, which would give both chambers of Congress minimal time to pass the package without clearing another short-term stopgap to buy some extra time. Aides from both parties said meeting that timeline was still possible but quickly slipping away.

Clearing another short-term continuing resolution is the most likely solution, should a final agreement not be made in time, since both sides want to avoid a shutdown.

Both Parties Push Edits

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said congressional Republicans are "whistling past the graveyard of a government shutdown," accusing them of trying to load up an omnibus spending bill with poison pill riders that Democrats oppose.

Democrats said major changes would need to be made to the GOP’s initial offer to attract their party’s votes, which will be critical in the Senate and most likely the House, since many conservatives tend to vote against major spending agreements.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he is opposed to the campaign finance rider, and his view is shared by many fellow GOP hardliners the House Freedom Caucus, in rare agreement with Democrats. He also laid out a variety of riders that must be included in the omnibus to win Freedom Caucus support: language to curb the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States, provisions to roll back environmental regulations and at least two of the three anti-abortion policies caucus members want enacted into law.

Huelskamp rejected the premise that conservatives don't want to vote for any omnibus, making their lobbying for various riders disingenuous.

“It’s a narrative put out, I think, by the few folks that say conservatives don’t want to work. We do. I mean we’re the ones putting up things, saying, ‘Hey, let’s do these. Let’s do these initiatives,' " he told reporters Wednesday.  "These are things that if offered on the floor, they would all pass — overwhelmingly.”

They would, however, be vetoed by President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, with Ryan's office insisting Rogers is playing a major role in negotiations, Lowey on Wednesday countered claims in other news media that she is not being given as much room by her leadership to bargain, particularly on the most contentious riders.

“My job is to fight to make these bills reflect Democratic values to the greatest extent possible. I won't simply go along and get along by agreeing to poison pill riders,” Lowey said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Surely Republicans understand that doubling down on the same bad proposals over and over isn't a negotiation.”

A Pelosi spokesman told CQ Roll Call that Lowey has been the lead negotiator for Democrats and briefed her leadership Tuesday night on the status of talks.

Whatever role Rogers has in bringing the omnibus to the finish line in time to avert a government shutdown, senior appropriator Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said she was "praying for him every day."

"He is a good man," she said. "He has a lot of independent frogs in a wheelbarrow and some jump out on occasion. But as an appropriator I just want to complete our work. We have worked very hard, we have waited since the second week of July to move our bills. This is a critical time and I think we’re going to get this done.”

John T. Bennett and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.