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Semafor LogoJoseph Zeballos-Roig
Joseph Zeballos-Roig
politicsNorth America

Why Sen. Roy Blunt won't miss his job

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REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

After a two-decade-long career on Capitol Hill in which he steered billions of dollars into cancer and Alzheimer’s disease research and was recognized as a powerful dealmaker, retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. says he's leaving Congress "totally unhappy.”

The reason? His job description changed. Lawmakers who once carefully decided how to use America’s tax dollars now procrastinate until the very last minute to pass giant spending bills, largely written by leadership.

“It’s an incredible mistake,” Blunt told Semafor. “The only mistake bigger would be not to do the work at all.”

Title iconThe View From Roy Blunt

Blunt spoke to Semafor in the run-up to final passage of the $1.7 trillion omnibus funding bill, which boosted domestic and military spending, while banning TikTok on government devices and trying to Jan. 6th-proof future elections.

Blunt pushed past conservative criticism to help pass the package but says he agrees jamming through 4,155 pages of legislation within three days in a take-it or leave-it vote is an awful way to govern.

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“This has become part of the process, one big bill at the end,” Blunt said, adding that the spending process is far too centralized among the four congressional budget leaders and it mostly cuts out the rank-and-file. “That’s not good either.”

Major Senate bills usually endure at least one near-death experience, and this year’s omnibus was no different with an 11th-hour snag over immigration. But one unusual dynamic trailed this effort: Instead of waiting for a GOP-led House to have a seat at the negotiating table early next year, Senate Republican leaders opted to muscle through an omnibus bill with Democrats.

That decision drew fierce criticism from a small band of Senate Republicans spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, upset that conservatives were getting cut out. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina called the omnibus “a train wreck” but said he would cast a vote for it anyway, stressing it’d be “the last time” he backed one.

But other GOP senators were frank that they simply didn’t trust Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is struggling to nail down enough votes to become speaker, to negotiate a big spending bill early next year.

“He’s focused on being speaker, and if I were in his shoes that’s what I would be focused on, trying to get enough votes,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who helped negotiate the deal as the top Republican on the appropriations committee, told Axios. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. quipped that some of the chamber’s Republicans felt they needed to spare McCarthy “the burden of having to govern.”

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When we spoke, Blunt agreed. “I think it would be hope over experience to assume that a brand new [GOP House] that hasn’t even formed its major committees yet could deal with or should even be expected to deal with a government-wide continuing resolution,” he said, referring to a short-term funding patch. “Nobody benefits from that.”

Senate Republicans are facing significant brain drain next year. Along with Blunt and Shelby, Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are headed for retirement. All four are considered experienced negotiators who help keep the machinery of government turning.

Blunt doesn’t expect those gears to stop spinning in his absence — but he does wish they’d move a little differently. “Congress functions when it needs to,” he said. “But there's a much better way to do it.”

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