The Omnibus Falls
How Republicans defeated a $1.1 trillion bill


Robert Costa

As he stepped into a Capitol elevator late Thursday, bundled up in preparation for the winter winds, Sen. Mitch McConnell cracked a thin smile. For the low-key leader of Senate Republicans, good spirits were certainly in order. Minutes before, his cross-aisle counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had sounded a death knell for the much-maligned $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package — the pork-packed keystone of the Democratic lame-duck agenda.

McConnell, in an interview with National Review Online, called it a “victory for the country.” It was also a victory for his caucus, which has battled all month to maintain a united front. Indeed, to halt Reid’s spending spree, McConnell had to spend the week tethered to the phone, twisting the arms of Republican appropriators.

Retiring GOP senators like Kit Bond (Mo.), George Voinovich (Ohio), and Robert Bennett (Utah) were considered by numerous Senate aides to be, at varying points, susceptible to Reid’s machinations. Other Republicans rumored to be mulling a “yea” vote on the omnibus included Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), who alone requested more than $500 million worth of earmarks in the bill.

McConnell’s challenge was to softly cajole pork-friendly Republicans, many of whom hold senior status in the upper chamber, to abandon their home-state projects. At one point in the deliberations, Reid mentioned nine Republicans (though not by name) who had signaled their support. Senior GOP aides dispute that number, but either way, the bill appears to have come dangerously close to passing. It took McConnell’s flurry of phone calls, the zealous efforts of Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), and threats from Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) to force a reading of the bill to ultimately crash the omnibus.

With his vote-count dwindling, a “sorry and disappointed” Reid took to the Senate floor to announce that he would pull his spending bill, caving to McConnell’s push to pass a simple, one-page resolution to continue government funding over the holiday recess. For full effect, in a move reminiscent of the health-care debates earlier this year, Republicans had hauled the entire 1,924-page cinder block of a bill onto the Senate floor. They’d come prepared for a showdown.

“I’m proud of our team for holding together,” McConnell said. “I’m proud of the appropriations-committee members who decided that this is not the way to do it.” Instead of following Reid’s demands, “we decided that we’re not going to pass a 2,000-page bill that nobody has seen since yesterday. That’s not the way to operate and that’s not the message from the November elections. We decided not to do it. Unified Republican opposition is what got it done.”

Democrats had mixed feelings about how Reid handled the omnibus at the eleventh hour. In an interview outside the Senate chamber, NRO asked Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) about whether he thinks Reid caved. “How about that caving,” Harkin said, as he turned to an aide. “I told you — that’s the way it’s going to be printed. That’s the way it’s going to be written.”

“I felt that we should have brought it up and made them vote on it,” Harkin said. “We have things in there on defense, homeland security, education, health, energy, and infrastructure that won’t be in the [continuing resolution]. At least I’d make them vote on it. Now they can say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for it.’ We never had a vote. I’m very disappointed. We should have had a vote on it.”

But the numbers, it seems, never came together for Reid, who had to fight a public-relations battle for the bill as he counted noses. The rhetoric between camps was heated. McCain, who spent the week railing against the omnibus, was beside himself. He had called the bill a “monstrosity” and “the most outrageous repudiation of the voter I’ve seen since I’ve been in the United States Senate,” and warned Republican colleagues who would dare support it.

On Thursday, after Reid’s announcement, McCain took to the floor to call the bill’s defeat a “seminal moment” in Senate history. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we stood up and said ‘enough,’” he said. He lamented, half-jokingly, that he would never again have the opportunity to chastise pork-addicted colleagues.