WASHINGTON -- Republicans spent four years berating the Democratic-led Senate for failing to pass a budget. Now that the Senate has approved a budget resolution, Democrats are accusing House Republican leaders of retreating from the legislative process they demanded.
"Republicans have repeatedly called for regular order ... they call for regular order all of the time," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference Wednesday, noting that House Democratic leaders sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging him to appoint conferees "without delay." "They’ve repeatedly chastised the Senate for not passing a budget bill," Pelosi said.
"Regular order" refers to the legislative process under which bills go through a committee and then to the floor, allowing lawmakers to debate and make amendments. The alternative is often leaders putting forward bills, sometimes negotiated in backroom deals, and bringing them straight to the floor without much chance for amendments.
Democrats have spent the week escalating pressure on Republicans to convene a budget conference committee. That committee would sift through the vastly different Senate and House budgets, and identify areas of agreement. But House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he wants a pre-conference framework first, even though until recently he, too, demanded regular order.
"In the past four years, the Senate hadn't done a budget. That means the process stopped," Ryan told CNN last month. "What we call regular order, where the House and the Senate pass a budget, then you try to reconcile the differences."
This week, Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill the parties were so far apart that a conference wouldn't result in an agreement. Ryan added that he was working with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to iron out differences in their budget plans.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Ryan was using "lousy" excuses.
Van Hollen sent Boehner his own letter, signed by all 17 Democrats on the House Budget Committee, calling for the speaker to convene a committee.
"The American public deserves this open debate. This is about our priorities and values of the country -- and how they're reflected in the budget," Van Hollen said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It sounds like what Republicans are proposing is everybody go behind closed doors to figure this out, which directly contradicts everything they have told the American public about their approach."
Boehner defended the GOP's approach Thursday, arguing that the House majority was in fact following regular order.
"The chairmen of the two committees are talking, and as you all know, it’s customary that there’s no appointment of a formal conference until such time as there’s some basic framework worked out from which they can proceed," Boehner said at a press conference. He added that Democrats were seeking a conference committee because it would enable them to bring "politically motivated" motions to the floor.
"Under rules, if you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there’s no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs to throw up on the House floor," Boehner said. "So to be frank with all of you, we’re following what I would describe as regular order. These informal conversations are underway, and that’s the way it should be."
But Democrats said they had a clear sense of how a conference could work in their favor. Their goal, Van Hollen said, was for each party to litigate its vision for a fiscal pathway. He suggested Republicans were afraid to expose the "extremist, lop-sided nature" of Ryan's budget.
Democrats said they are confident there's widespread support for replacing the damaging cuts brought onto domestic spending by sequestration, rather than cutting further into non-defense programs as Ryan's budget does. Democrats have also signaled a willingness to cut entitlement spending if Republicans agree to new tax revenues. GOP leadership has emphatically stated that any new tax increases are off the table.
"I don't think that they're arguments will stand up in the light of day," Van Hollen said.