Sen. Richard Shelby loaded up the $1.1 trillion spending bill with pet provisions, including one measure worth hundreds of millions to a rocket manufacturer with operations in his home state.
The cagey lawmaker also fought hard for language protecting red snapper fisheries on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, even issuing a press release bragging about his efforts. “That is why I fought tirelessly for several provisions to be included in the omnibus appropriations bill that I believe will help respond to the serious challenges facing anyone who wants to fish for red snapper in the Gulf,” Shelby said in the release.
But in an only-in-Congress twist, Shelby, a very senior member on the appropriations committee, still plans to vote against the sprawling omnibus package. He’s citing the lack of language to restrict Syrian refugees as the reason.
The move, however, could make the Republican senator the unofficial chairman of the “hope yes, vote no” caucus on Capitol Hill. It also demonstrates the potency of immigration as an electoral issue in Alabama and the power of Shelby’s fellow home-state senator, Republican Jeff Sessions, over the controversial topic in the Southern state.
GOP insiders note that Alabama’s Republican primary is on March 1, and Shelby is loath to do anything that would create distance between him and Sessions on immigration before that date.
Sessions, the hardest of hard-liners on immigration issues, has warned that passage of the omnibus is part of a plan by President Barack Obama — with the tacit acceptance of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — to resettle tens of thousands of potentially dangerous Syrian refugees in the United States.
Sessions says the White House is using the threat of a government shutdown to force Republicans to back down on any effort to block refugees from entering the country, or increase vetting for those who do.
“If you don’t vote for it [the spending bill], you shut the government down and you’re a bad guy,” Sessions told Breitbart last week. “And that’s the way it’s been year after year after year.”
So Shelby is voting against the omnibus package, despite his extensive and successful work to shape its contents.
“While I support the inclusion of several conservative priorities and key provisions critical to Alabama in this year’s omnibus bill, I oppose the overall bill because it gives a blank check to President Obama to continue his dangerous Syrian refugee resettlement plan,” Shelby said in a statement Wednesday. “During this increasingly uncertain time in our nation, we simply cannot allow the president — who is more focused on gun control and climate change than national security — to unilaterally determine who can enter our country.”
The Alabama Republican has already angered Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Georgia Republicans over what he included in the bill.
McCain was infuriated at Shelby for inserting a provision into the 2,000-page bill allowing defense contractor United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that builds rockets in Alabama — to continue purchasing Russian rocket engines. The measure would reverse language that McCain included in the annual defense authorization bill that limited ULA to purchasing nine engines from Russia.
McCain complained that Shelby never spoke to him first about the provision.
“Of course not, of course not, of course not. That’s not the way Sen. Shelby does business,” McCain told POLITICO on Wednesday.
Shelby also included nonbinding language in the omnibus that affects a long-running water dispute between Alabama and Georgia officials, a matter that’s already in federal court.
Late Thursday, the language was dropped after Peach State lawmakers threatened to vote against the omnibus, a problem for House leaders who need all the votes they can get for the measure.
In a letter last month, the Georgia delegation asked party leaders and the Appropriations committees to stay away from the issue, but Shelby included the provision anyway, which angered Peach State lawmakers. The Georgia delegation met Thursday to try to resolve the matter, said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said all of the state’s Republicans and Democrats were upset by Shelby’s move.
“Shelby has done this over and over and so far we’ve been lucky enough to defend it,” Westmoreland said of keeping similar language out of previous bills.
He criticized Shelby’s decision to insert the controversial language and then plan to vote against the entire bill.
“That’s nuts,” Westmoreland said.
Anna Palmer contributed to this report.
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