Fight over flight to Cochran funeral breaks out in Senate Appropriations Committee

By John Bresnahan

What started as a routine request — arranging for a government flight to take senators to the funeral of the late Sen. Thad Cochran — has become a controversy over Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby’s running of the once-powerful panel, including whether committee aides were retaliated against for complaining about the episode.

The dispute comes as Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, has increasingly asserted his power since taking over the Appropriations Committee last year when Cochran gave up the gavel. Shelby has huddled privately with President Donald Trump on several occasions to discuss spending issues, blocked a disaster-aid bill because it didn't include harbor maintenance funding he sought, and privately negotiated a budget caps deal with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Shelby's efforts have had mixed success — more spending bills have gotten approved under his chairmanship, yet Republicans weren't able to avoid the longest government shutdown in history. And Trump still took the unprecedented move of declaring a national emergency and diverting billions of dollars in previously appropriated Pentagon funds to a border wall between the United States and Mexico, a direct challenge to Congress' power of the purse.

Yet this latest episode is much more inside baseball, although senators and aides have been buzzing about it for the past two weeks.

Cochran, a nearly 40-year GOP senator from Mississippi and a longtime member of the Appropriations panel, died May 30. Several senators wanted to attend the funeral for their longtime colleague, including Shelby. Shelby aides arranged a flight on a private government jet to Mississippi through the Coast Guard, according to multiple sources.

Yet Shelby’s staffers allowed only Leahy on that flight, the sources said. Aides to Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker asked for their boss to be allowed on the Coast Guard jet, only to be told it was full, the sources said.

However, several Shelby staffers who had served under Cochran at the Appropriations Committee were on the flight — meaning a senator was shut out from a flight that Senate staffers were allowed on.

Another jet was procured — this time from the Navy — to take Wicker and other senators to Mississippi, the sources said. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) was among those on the Wicker flight.

Both Shelby and Leahy spoke at the June 5 funeral for Cochran in Jackson, Miss., the second of two days of ceremonies to honor the late senator.

A portrait of the late Republican senator Thad Cochran, looms over family members, during funeral services at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Cochran was 81 when he died Thursday in a veterans' nursing home in Oxford, Mississippi. He was the 10th longest serving senator.

Shelby described Cochran as “a great legislator, a true Southern gentleman," according to The Associated Press. "Thad, foremost, was an Ole Miss Rebel," Shelby said, drawing chuckles from some in the church.

But then concerns were raised inside the Senate GOP leadership over why two private jets were needed to transport senators to the funeral, at the added cost of thousands of dollars to taxpayers.

Shannon Hines, Shelby’s top staffer on Appropriations, quickly gave a choice to the two Senate Appropriations Committee staffers involved in arranging the trip — quit or take a demotion, according to several sources. The two aides, who POLITICO is not naming, took the demotions.

When asked about the incident, Shelby insisted, “Nobody’s been fired.” Shelby didn't answer questions about what happened to the two staffers but added, “We’re always looking for new people, good people.”

Shelby also defended Hines, who has attracted criticism from other Senate staffers during her tenure as staff director at Appropriations, including for the delay of the disaster-aid bill over a parochial issue favored by the Alabama Republican.

Shelby noted that any actions taken by Hines were at his direction.

“Shannon Hines is a great [staff] director. Ask anyone on the floor; she’s great,” Shelby said. “And she wouldn’t do anything I didn’t tell her to do.”

Shelby wanted to use the flight to Mississippi to lobby Leahy on a budget caps deal, according to senators and aides.

Without a deal between the White House and Congress to raise those spending caps, there will be $125 billion in automatic spending cuts split between defense and domestic programs. The White House and congressional leaders are trying to avoid that draconian reduction in discretionary spending, although negotiations got off to a poor start when Trump angrily walked out of a White House meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Shelby and Leahy also flew to the Paris Air Show this past weekend, discussing the spending bills further. The Senate is going to take up a package Trump requested to help deal with the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, but with the president also threatening mass deportations of undocumented immigrants as he kicks off his reelection campaign, Democrats are in no mood to go along with the request.

Shelby also doesn't have the authority to negotiate a budget caps deal on his own, even if he is able to reach an accord with Leahy. Trump and Pelosi are the key players in these negotiations, and they're nowhere close to an agreement.