Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, achieved a compromise Friday with House leaders to bring budget mavericks like himself back into the fold and avoid a weeklong spending-cut spree.
He appeared with House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., to announce compromise plans for more thoughtful debate on cuts, rather than what Orton called a "congressional food fight" where the House would vote for 56 straight hours on cuts with little or no debate for each.Gephardt said the compromise "takes the same tough steps as the budget-cutting measures that have been proposed in recent weeks, but does it without forsaking all debate - without turning the U.S. Congress into the U.S. circus."
Orton added he too worried the "free-for-all approach could rapidly degenerate into a partisan blood-letting and a scorched-earth policy, which is not likely to result in any meaningful process reform or deficit reduction."
Orton had earlier defied Democratic leaders to join Ross Perot, a horde of Republicans and a few renegade Democrats to push the so-called "A to Z" budget-cutting plan. It called for votes on any spending cut proposed by any member, with any money saved to help reduce the deficit.
But Orton was a maverick among mavericks and didn't like the A to Z plan's proposal to throw out normal House rules for the 56 straight hours for votes on cuts with no more than an hour of debate on each.
So he refused to sign a petition that would have forced that procedure to the House floor. And as that petition neared achieving the 218 signatures it needed (backers had obtained 205), Orton negotiated between mavericks and Democratic leaders.
"I told leadership that we could get killed on this," Orton said. He said leaders had no objection to the idea of voting on budget cuts and using the savings for deficit reduction, so they told him to bring a proposal that could avoid a free-for-all.
"I did, and we negotiated for weeks until we had something everyone could live with," Orton said.
It calls for "open debate" on the House's 13 annual appropriations bills, meaning any member can propose any additional cut to those bills that they like. Orton said that may bring more than 56 hours of debate on cuts that the "A to Z" plan pushed.
The House will also consider for at least two days ways to reduce spending on entitlements.
Orton also received a commitment for debate before the July 4 recess to consider budget process reform including votes on allowing a line-item veto, putting a cap on entitlements and reforming mechanisms on how to fund emergencies.
Orton and Gephardt said they are not sure that will be enough to avoid a spending spree but added they think it is.
"I talked to the 11 Republicans who sponsored the `A to Z' bill but haven't signed the discharge petition (to force the free-for-all), and they said they would support us," Orton said.
"All the Democrats I talked to - but I haven't talked to all of them - said they would enthusiastically support us."
One of the Democrats who had sponsored the "A to Z" bill but had not signed the petition to force it to the floor was Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah.
She said its free-for-all provisions "were a gimmick." She worried members would vote on measures they didn't understand, "and it suggests we don't have to study to make intelligent decisions, and that's ridiculous."
She praised Orton and Gephardt for the compromise that she said provides a "thoughtful, deliberative process that people expect."