Senate Faces Expanding Complications As Debate Over Continuing Resolution Begins

Posted March 12, 2013 at 6:56pm

Appropriators in the Senate are trying to stave off attempts from budget hawks and proponents of more special exceptions that threaten to slow down work on the continuing resolution needed to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.

Senators began lining up a potential logjam of amendments as the stopgap funding measure (HR 933) hit the floor on Tuesday, and now that Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have lifted their holds on the bill, consideration of those amendments has begun.

“We’re off and running,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, offered the first amendment, which would delay funding for implementing the Affordable Care Act until the economy begins to grow again.

A sudden procedural slowdown Tuesday prompted tempers to flare and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say, “We should have been legislating today.” But after McCain and Coburn said Wednesday morning they had completed their review of the bill and would let consideration resume, Reid withdrew his cloture motion.

The continuing resolution to extend funding for the government through the rest of the 2013 fiscal year on the expiration of the current CR on March 27 has become a relatively rare vehicle for riders from senators looking to score points through a spending plan.

They range from plans to extend flexibility to more federal agencies to better manage budget cuts under sequester to measures that would restrict aid to Egypt, suspend funding for the 2010 health care law (PL 111, 148, PL 111-152) and carve out some of the line items that were included when Mikulski and Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, of Alabama, agreed to include several separate bills with updated spending directions.

But the bill faces attacks from fiscal conservatives who say they have identified many wasteful provisions in the bill. “I’m willing to do what is necessary to make sure we get a continuing resolution,” Coburn said on the floor Tuesday. “But I’m not willing to do that blindly.”

McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said appropriators had added provisions that usurped the directions of authorizing committees.

“I’ve identified at least 59 programs in the CR that are receiving $6.4 billion more than requested by the president or authorized by the defense authorization bill,” he said. “These include $120 million for a public regional health laboratory and civilian wastewater improvements in Guam, even though the Armed Services Committees in the House and Senate explicitly prohibited this funding; $567 million for unrequested medical research; and $120 million for algae research in Hawaii.”

Although the delay suggested complications behind a bill needed to avert a government shutdown, lawmakers insisted it amounted to a speed bump, not a roadblock.

“I expect it will come to the floor and pass” this week, said Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a senior GOP appropriator.

He noted Mikulski and Shelby have been working closely with House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, to create a bill that can pass both chambers.

“I am going to vote to move the process along and I don’t think reconciling any differences will be much of a problem,” said Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Democrats are unhappy with several aspects of the bill — it does not fund the Affordable Care Act or the financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203), and it keeps the sequester in place.

But those provisions also will draw Republican votes.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said he was glad to see that the measure would preserve the spending cuts to be made by the sequester, which effectively would cap regular fiscal 2013 discretionary spending at about $984 billion. “We’re still studying it, but I am pleased with the overall top-line number,” he said.

Some of the planned amendments may split senators more along regional rather than partisan lines. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a GOP appropriator and the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he will offer an amendment to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration to avert cuts to 147 air traffic control towers in rural areas, seeking to shift money for this purpose from unexpended funds at the Department of Transportation.

Many liberals will support a bid by Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs both the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, to provide relatively big boosts to the two largest education programs. Title I, for school districts with a large percentage of low-income students, would get $107 million more, while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would get $125 million more. A third program that helps students from disadvantaged communities get into college, TRIO, would also get a $14 million boost in the Harkin’s amendment.

None of those education programs received increases in the CR proposed by Mikulski and Shelby.

Meanwhile, a senior Republican senator said Coburn and other Republicans were pushing for a vote on a budget point of order by Michael D. Crapo of Idaho for a provision in bill that would provide for a change in mandatory program spending to allowing mandatory funds to be shifted out of a crime victims compensation fund to other discretionary programs.

Anomalies Ahead

Unable to complete a full set of new spending bills, Senate appropriators also have included a wide array of exceptions to address pressing needs in the stopgap continuing resolution section of their proposed final fiscal 2013 package.

More than 80 so-called anomalies were included in the Senate’s expanded and altered version of a House-passed fiscal 2013 spending package, according to a summary from the Appropriations Committee. The package includes five fiscal 2013 spending bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Homeland Security and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, and then a CR for the agencies and programs covered by the unfinished seven bills.

This effectively keeps agencies in a kind of budget limbo, running through the end of September through an extension of fiscal 2012 appropriations (PL 112-55, PL 112-74).

Many of the anomalies are the same as the ones included in the House’s fiscal 2013 CR, such as language needed to continue a pay freeze for federal employees and to give the office of the Architect of the Capitol the authority to transfer $61.2 million within its accounts for work on the Capitol Dome.

Both the House and Senate versions of the CR would provide a $363 million increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons activities, but the Senate intends to provide a slightly smaller bump — $110 million — for the NNSA’s domestic uranium enrichment research and development, which is part of its nuclear nonproliferation activities. The House’s CR proposed a $150 million increase.

The Senate appropriators stuck fairly close to the House’s plan for dividing up the money among the sections of the spending package representing the dozen annual appropriations bills, moving about $1.15 billion, or less than 1 percent, of the $1.043 trillion available under current spending caps, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. The biggest loser in the changes was the Interior-Environment measure, which was cut by 2.5 percent, or $779 million, to $29.8 billion in the Senate bill. Winners were the Agriculture ($285 million), Financial Services (+$227 million) and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development ($385 million) sections of the bill, although these gains were between less than 1 percent to about 1.4 percent. Mikulski and Shelby have made it clear that they want their bill to be capable of winning support in both chambers.

“It prioritizes spending and aims to steer clear of divisive issues,” Shelby said on the floor.

“We’re reaching across the aisle. We’re reaching across the dome,” Mikulski said. “That’s how we’re trying to do it.”

Alan K. Ota contributed to this story.