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Electoral Waiting Game May Tempt GOP Appropriators

Poised to make gains in the November elections, Senate Republicans may have little incentive to cooperate on spending bills once they reach the floor. That’s because they may get a better deal in the lame duck, which could raise the likelihood for a continuing resolution to start fiscal 2015.

The GOP is within striking distance of netting the six seats needed to gain control of the Senate in November. But even picking up only a few more seats may strengthen the GOP’s hand in debates over appropriations bills.

Senate GOP leaders have given no indication that they would consider slowing or blocking any of the 12 annual spending bills once the measures reach the floor this summer. However, punting some of those bills until a lame-duck session — and passing a stopgap measure in the meantime — could leave Republicans better positioned to strike deals that reflect more of their priorities after the elections.

That could be especially critical for program funding levels and the high-stakes policy riders in politically contentious spending bills such as Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Labor-HHS-Education.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., ranking member of Senate Appropriations, said there’s “always an argument” to wait until after the elections in order to get a better deal on pending legislation, but cautioned against relying on that approach.

“You never know what’s going to happen in November,” he said.

Many Senate Republicans said it would send a stronger message to voters if lawmakers debated and passed fiscal 2015 spending measures on time and didn’t have to rely on a continuing resolution to fund government operations at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“I would play the long game,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. “If we embrace normal order that would probably help us later, because what are we going to do if we get in charge? Are we going to not pass appropriations bills or have a budget? If we do what [Senate Democrats]have done, what good are we?”

James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who voted against the January omnibus (PL 113-76), said “now’s the time to be responsible” on appropriations bills.

“We have not had the regular order that normally we do, where we can use the system, present the case, go through the authorization and I think it’s an opportunity to try and reform the thing,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski has said she wants Congress to clear all appropriations bills before the elections. In the meantime, the Maryland Democrat has set an aggressive schedule, with plans to hold the first full-committee markup by May 22.

“We’re going to hold 60 hearings in six weeks. We’re going to presume goodwill and an expeditious movement of the appropriations committee,” Mikulski said.

But some lawmakers say a continuing resolution may be necessary to cover at least some of the spending bills at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Mikulski “will move forward on appropriations bills, but at the end of the day I think we’ll probably end up with a continuing resolution,” said Mike Johanns, R-Neb., an appropriator set to retire at the end of the current Congress.

Some observers said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada may not want to subject some of his politically vulnerable members to tough votes on some of the more controversial spending bills ahead of the elections, given that control of the chamber is at stake.

Shelby said plenty of time remains to finish spending bills before the election season ramps up. “I think we’ll do well in November, but that’s November. We’re talking about March still,” Shelby said.

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