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Capitol spending bosses offer bipartisan success

WASHINGTON - On the face of it, one of the most powerful pairings in Washington is a hopeless mismatch - a former social worker and liberal Democrat from Baltimore's working-class Fells Point neighborhood and an old-school, cigar-chomping GOP conservative raised in a dry county in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

But in a bitterly divided Congress, the odd couple of Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Harold Rogers is a rare bipartisan success story.

Mikulski and Rogers are chiefly responsible for divvying up $1 trillion in federal spending as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the same committee in the House. While their personal backgrounds could hardly be more different, their operating styles are remarkably similar.

Both are pragmatists in a Congress littered with ideologues. Neither minces words or tolerates foolishness.

Both prefer deal-making to speechifying. And each understands that in order to strike a deal the other side needs to claim some wins.

"Hal is a conservative but he is not a hard-headed ideologue. He's a realist," said former Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. "He's good at saying, 'Look, I'll level with you. This is what I can do and this is what I can't do.'"

Mikulski has a reputation for toughness though her once-fearsome temper seems to have mellowed in recent years.

Rogers and Mikulski face an enormously difficult task: advancing 12 spending bills setting the annual operating budgets for federal agencies and most government programs, ranging from funding the armed forces and overseas military operations to air traffic control, the national parks and forecasting the weather.

House and Senate leaders used to give great deference to the committees but their standing has slipped of late.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was a longtime Appropriations Committee insider but has usually given short shrift to the panel's pleas for floor time to debate its bills. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, barely hid his disdain for the panel's parochial, clubby ways during his first two decades in the House. One of his first acts as speaker was to impose a ban on popular home-district pet projects known as earmarks.

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