Agreement Scarce Over Appropriations Methods

Chambers and Parties Split Over Approach to Passing Spending Measures

Posted October 12, 2011 at 6:34pm

In a House-Senate fight that cuts across party lines, Congressional leaders are divided over whether to pursue an omnibus appropriations bill or tackle the issue in three or four separate “minibus” bills that combine spending measures.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a veteran appropriator, has pushed the minibus strategy, and many of his colleagues prefer the approach because it allows more input from rank-and-file Members and closer consideration of each measure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) backed the strategy Wednesday, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has also said he prefers that approach.

Reid said Wednesday the Senate would begin considering a minibus this week that will be made up of the appropriations bills for: Commerce, Justice and science; Agriculture, rural development, and Food and Drug Administration; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

A House Appropriations Committee aide said the bill is not related to negotiations between the two chambers over spending levels and other issues because a true minibus would be a vehicle agreed on by both chambers.

“My preference is for single appropriations bills, and the next best thing is for minibuses,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who is also an appropriator. “We have to go deeply into every function of government and appropriate exactly the amount of money [required], and it is much easier to do when you are dealing with one bill at a time. One is better than three, and three is better than 12.”

House GOP leaders agree three or four vehicles combining several
appropriations bills each would give Members more input, but it’s for that reason some of them prefer an omnibus. Fresh from losing a floor vote on a short-term continuing resolution over conservative defections, leaders are wary of the number of demands they’ll face from Members on minibus bills.

They also argue a single vehicle would give them more leverage in negotiations with Democrats about spending levels and riders.

There is “less incoming fire” with an omnibus, said Rep. Jeff Flake, characterizing the first part of the argument. The Arizona Republican is an appropriator but has led the charge that leaders should cut spending more deeply and pursue an open process on spending bills.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers confirmed that some GOP leaders are arguing for an omnibus for those two reasons. “Yes, that’s one point of view,” the Kentucky Republican said.

An omnibus could inflict political bruises for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) because House Republicans harshly criticized one-size-fits-all spending bills in the previous Congress and vowed in their “Pledge to America” to “advance major legislation one issue at a time.”

But some House GOP conservatives appear wary of waging war over an omnibus and will instead make a stand over keeping an open rule for any appropriations measure.

Flake is circulating a letter praising Boehner for the “considerable strides” the House has made under the Speaker’s leadership “in returning the appropriations process to an open process.”

“Unfortunately, apparently out of necessity, talk has reportedly turned to finishing the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations process with either an omnibus or several so-called ‘mini-buses,'” the letter says. “We write to strongly urge that any legislation making appropriations for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2012 be brought to the floor under a process allowing for amendments under an open rule.”

“An open House has been his hallmark, and it’s a good one,” Flake said this week, regarding Boehner.

GOP leadership offices, asked about their embrace of the omnibus, pinned blame on the Senate’s schedule.

When asked about whether the Speaker supports an omnibus approach, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “Boehner has made it clear that how we spend taxpayers’ money deserves the utmost scrutiny, and the House did a good job passing appropriations bills under an unprecedented open process this year. Since the Senate Democratic leaders failed to pass a budget or the bulk of the appropriations bills, we will have to look at other options.”

Senators have their own festering conflicts that could imperil that chamber’s passage of the remaining appropriations bills.

The three-bill minibus package will probably draw a large number of amendments, but Senate leaders hope to work out an agreement on which ones will get votes so as not to have consideration of the package take too much time, according to Democratic and Republican aides.

McConnell, after the Senate GOP weekly lunch Wednesday, said he expects the bills to be open for amendment and to pass the Senate.

“We should be able to move those three appropriations bills across the floor,” McConnell said. “I expect most Members on both sides are going to be voting for them.”

Consideration of the package comes after Democrats and Republicans squared off last week over Republican efforts to offer amendments to a bill that would crack down on Chinese currency manipulation.

The standoff resulted in Senate Democrats voting by a simple majority to close off one option the minority had to try to change legislation after cloture is invoked.

But a Republicans aide said as long as they have an opportunity to amend the measures, they plan to cooperate on the spending bills.

If an agreement on amendments can’t be reached, Senate Democrats could file cloture on the package in order to bring it to a vote.

But it’s not guaranteed that Republican appropriators who backed the bill in committee would vote to cut off debate if it comes to that.