Throughout his 36-year career in the upper chamber of Congress, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) staked his claim as being one of the body’s most skilled negotiators.
Shelby, 88, bid his farewell address on the Senate floor last week. On Jan. 3, when the 118th Congress is seated, an era will come to an end. Alabama’s longest-serving U.S. senator will close what will undoubtedly be a career that political science majors study for decades to come.
While Shelby is set to enter retirement 27 years older than the average American, the senator’s work ethic has yet to subside and appears to bear no relation to his age.
The GOP’s chief appropriator, Shelby is seeking $656.4 million in earmarks for his home state in the fiscal year 2023 spending bill. While many fiscal hawks positioned to Shelby’s political right have taken exception to the practice of earmarking, the dean of Alabama’s federal delegation takes great pride in sending dollars back to the Yellowhammer State.
Due to his seniority, Shelby has long been well-positioned to secure federal funding for Alabama-based projects. Following the 2018 retirement of former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Shelby rose to one of the most prestigious positions on Capitol Hill: chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
For years, Shelby leveraged his influence and bipartisan deal-making capabilities to land funding provisions favorable to Alabama. Once he found himself holding the highest-ranking position on the Senate’s most powerful committee, Shelby took full advantage of the opportunity.
Through his committee work, Shelby has delivered billions of dollars in federal funding to Alabama’s universities, infrastructure, defense industrial base, among many other priorities vital to the state.
Given that this will mark Shelby’s final government funding bill, the statesman will seek to galvanize bipartisan forces one final time before exiting the halls of Congress.
On the line, as aforementioned, is the $656.4 million in earmarks for Alabama. Adding to the dramatics, the federal government will experience a partial shutdown if no deal is reached by midnight Friday. Coupled, these two factors qualify the bill as high-stakes legislation.
Alabama’s senior senator has taken heat from House conservatives over his willingness to play ball with Democratic appropriators. According to some, Shelby’s actions amount to a “betrayal” and are being undertaken for the senator to erect a “new monument to himself.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is the lead candidate to become the next speaker, has openly slammed Senate Republicans’ work to cooperate with the opposing party to enact the $1.7 trillion funding bill. McCarthy has suggested that any deal on a funding package should be postponed until Republicans retake a House majority in January.
“The Republican leader in the House, he’s focused on one thing: being speaker,” Shelby told Politico in a recent interview. “That’s part of the political game.”
According to Shelby, if his endeavor proves successful, it could potentially save the House GOP Caucus grief due to the infighting that typically ensues over funding measures.
“If we’re successful, we’ll have probably done them a favor,” Shelby said. “There probably won’t be much thanks for it.”
He acknowledged that lower chamber Republicans “can’t say that,” and asserted that he understands “what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
For a man who already has his name engraved on an untold number of structures throughout Alabama, Shelby takes issue with U.S. Rep. Chip Roy’s (R-Texas) suggestion that he wishes to make this last spending bill about his legacy.
“I don’t want a monument,” he told Politico. “Monuments are for pigeons and dogs.”
Shelby not only faces detractors from his right flank, but has also received criticism from U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who is set to become chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
“I was surprised that they didn’t enter into negotiations, because they are the Republicans in the House,” said Shelby. “They should have been at the table, but they chose not to come. That’s up to them.”
According to U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Auburn), Shelby’s unique position that exposes him to attacks from Republican colleagues “goes with the business. You know, like being a head coach.” Alabama’s junior senator also agreed that Shelby’s efforts would help Republicans circumvent infighting next year.
Shelby, a former Democrat who changed political affiliation after the South’s party restructuring, told Politico that “you’re not going to have your way yourself. You’ve got to work with other people to advance your cause. Try to understand where they’re coming from.”
While failure to successfully negotiate a final deal will not define Shelby’s career, securing a victory by ending his tenure in bipartisan fashion would be emblematic of the master appropriator’s service in the world’s greatest deliberative body.
Dylan Smith is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL
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