WASHINGTON — From abortion to electronic privacy to gun background checks, a strange thing has been happening on the floor of the House as it debates its spending bills for the coming fiscal year: the stirrings of liberalism.
The House on Thursday voted 221-200 to approve an amendment by one of its most vocal liberal members, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to ban federal contracts for companies that set up sham headquarters in offshore tax havens like Bermuda. Thirty-four Republicans bucked their party to push it to passage.
That was only the most recent stirring of life on the House’s left flank. Democrats have long hoped they could find common cause on at least some issues with the Republican conference’s libertarian wing. That is starting to happen, fueled by rising distrust of government on the right, a willingness of Democrats to defy the Obama administration in some instances and a freewheeling amendment process on appropriations bills.
Lawmakers involved in the legislating say their successes on the spending bills are not the result of luck or happenstance, but of concerted outreach and negotiations. As momentum builds, those efforts could extend beyond routine spending bills to larger policy matters, like overhauling mandatory prison-sentencing laws, reinstituting voting-rights protections stripped away by the Supreme Court, or pressing far-reaching changes to intelligence and surveillance practices.
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“I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to get progressive amendments passed,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “I wish we could do more.”
The tally of left-libertarian legislation is growing, with the House at least on record voting to limit federal law-enforcement actions, intelligence efforts and social-policy reach. On May 30, 49 Republicans crossed the aisle to approve language barring the federal government from raiding medical-marijuana dispensaries.
“Some people are suffering, and if a doctor feels that he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., once one of the chamber’s most ardent conservatives, now a co-sponsor of the marijuana measure.
The day before, 76 Republicans joined Democrats to add $19.5 million to the federal instant background-check system for gun purchases. The House Appropriations Committee has approved an amendment to allow Peace Corps volunteers who become pregnant by rape to have a federally funded abortion, and another measure limiting the federal government’s access to private email communications.
“By passing this amendment, the Appropriations Committee is taking a critical step towards ensuring all Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment — their mail, documents on their desks at home, and now their private emails,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., one of the measure’s authors.
On June 20, the House voted 293-123 to prohibit the National Security Agency and CIA from placing “backdoor” surveillance technologies on commercial technology products and to end warrantless collection of Americans’ online activities. That amendment, passed over the White House’s objections with a veto-proof margin, was written by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., one of the House’s most outspoken libertarians, with the Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, and Rush Holt of New Jersey, a physicist.
An amendment by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., reversed cuts to a Clinton-era program that funds local police forces, a program long on the Republican target list. The liberal Democrat Republicans love to hate, Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, convinced just enough Republicans to pass an amendment blocking the Justice Department from compelling journalists to divulge confidential sources. Another Democratic amendment clears a legal path for states to cultivate industrial hemp.
To be sure, Republicans note, plenty of amendments have driven spending bills to the right. Just last week, the House voted to block the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change on multiple fronts, including one amendment that prohibits any funding for any aspect of the administration’s “climate change agenda.”
Amendments also have passed to end deferring deportation of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, to fund a Justice Department investigation of the Department of Homeland Security’s release of illegal immigrants and to block high-speed rail in California.
But, Massie said, the libertarian-liberal alliance is real and growing. He said he has been working with Lofgren on legislation that would repeal a federal law that makes it a felony to unlock a cellphone tied to a particular carrier, even after a contract is expired. Libertarians are also teaming with Democrats to change laws on federal mandatory minimum sentencing.
“We are working very hard to forge these coalitions,” Massie said.
The Senate has not passed any of the dozen appropriations bills that Congress is supposed to do each year, putting the fate of the House-passed language in limbo. More than likely, House and Senate negotiators will meet after the November election to cobble together a giant bill to finance the government for the fiscal year that begins in October.
At that point, with Democrats still in the Senate majority, at least until January, the liberal amendments passed by the House may have a better chance of surviving than conservative ones, Democratic aides said.