11/21/2005 07:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Life Support for Reconciliation

Representative Richard Pombo may have shot himself in the foot. Two weeks ago, when the Republican leadership had to strip Arctic and coastal drilling out of the House version of the budget reconciliation bill in order to attract enough moderate Republican votes to pass it, Pombo and fellow leadership favorite Joe Barton, the Chair of the Commerce Committee, staged a fake leadership schism and kept the bill from being reported out at all. The purpose of the playacting was to help the leadership put more pressure on House moderates. Although the media reported it as a serious split, it didn't work.

So last Friday morning, at about 1 AM, Joe Barton finally stopped playacting and provided the critical vote that enabled the Budget Reconciliation bill to pass 217-215. But, meanwhile, the House had rejected the Health and Human Service funding bill when 22 Republicans members joined a united cadre of Democrats. So, in order to get 217 votes, even with Barton and Pombo officially back on the reservation, the leadership had to soften some of the bill's cuts in social services. Worse, for Pombo, during the intervening week, the media discovered his other environmental poison pill, the provision that would allow millions of acres of public land to be put at risk or given away, ostensibly for mining, but actually for any kind of development scheme a greedy speculator might come up with.

You can already sense a real rebellion building in Western states like Colorado, where hiking access to some of the state's "14,000 footers" could be cut off, in Montana, where hunting and fishing groups fear loss of access to prized habitat, and even in upscale resort towns like Aspen and Vail. Pombo's biggest leg up in sneaking this provision through was that it had gone relatively unnoticed while the spotlight was on the Arctic and the coasts. Now that it's had an extra week to attract attention, this outrageous provision will be much tougher for Pombo to hold onto in the budget conference.

Of course, with only 217 votes in the House going into conference, and only 52 in the Senate, whether this Congress can come to any agreement at all is an open question. The latest ploy is to try to persuade Republican moderates to approve Arctic drilling in exchange for more funding for low-income energy assistance, with Montana's Dennis Rehberg leading the charge. Meanwhile, Pombo has threatened to cut funding for the Midwests's small dairy producers (though not for Western dairymen like himself).

Pombo keeps saying he doesn't really care about the budget anyway. The lack of a budget bill, he said, "as far as our issues are concerned, our energy issues, that's not a bad thing for us." That's because, apparently, he believes he can get a better deal next year if energy prices remain high. (Does the phrase blackmail come to mind, here?) According to Congress Daily, moderates are not showing any sign of backing down. "The conference report is not going to go anywhere if there's even a hint of ANWR in there," said a spokesman for the Main Street Partnership, a moderate Republican coalition.

So the key is for those who dislike various features of both versions of the bill to step up the pressure on the moderates in both houses to stand firm.