With Senate Action Stalled, Continuing Resolution Looks Likely for Fall

Posted July 18, 2014 at 3:15pm

With the Senate’s regular appropriations work all but dead and an unexpected supplemental spending request for child migrants consuming time and energy on Capitol Hill, a government-wide continuing resolution now appears to be a near certainty for the fall.

The politics of a rancorous midterm election season have seeped into Congress’ summer workload, ending most bipartisan optimism that lawmakers could pass and conference at least some of their regular spending bills before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put a fork in the appropriations season when he conspicuously omitted fiscal 2015 spending bills from his agenda for the July work period when he spoke to reporters earlier this month. The Nevada Democrat had previously promised to set aside two weeks in July for the consideration of spending bills on the floor.

Reid in recent weeks has offered little hope that he would revive the three-bill, $126.2 billion spending package he pulled from the floor in June after an amendment standoff with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Election year flash-point issues, such as Environmental Protection Agency climate change regulations and the 2010 health care law, have had an effect on committee-level business, prompting Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski to put off markups for several non-defense fiscal 2015 spending bills.

That leaves a dim prospect for any substantive appropriations work — aside from the child migrant supplemental — until after the November elections, or perhaps later.

‘Tough Politics’

Many senior appropriators say they now see a 12-bill continuing resolution as a near inevitability, as the legislative calendar ahead of the August recess dwindles.

“A month ago I thought we would have maybe passed two or three bills, but we haven’t and the prospects don’t look good at the moment,” said Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on Senate Appropriations. “Things could change — they change on a dime up here, quickly. But it’s an election year and this is tough politics. You can’t divorce the politics from the procedure and the process.”

Even Mikulski recently acknowledged for the first time that she is beginning to eye an omnibus as a possibility to wrap up fiscal 2015 work, even as she continues to pursue other ways forward on individual spending bills ahead of Oct. 1. But the Maryland Democrat said that effort is also being “coupled with laying the groundwork for an omnibus, while the president wants us to move a supplemental.”

“I’ve got a full plate and a wallet that’s more like a Lean Cuisine,” Mikulski said earlier this month.

Appropriations staff members from both parties have long acknowledged quietly that a CR would likely be needed for the more contentious fiscal 2015 spending bills and that a wrap-up omnibus in the lame-duck session would likely be the best scenario during a fiercely partisan midterm election year.

Budget Deal Optimism Dashed

The gridlock in the Senate has swiftly clipped any leftover sense of optimism that appropriators could, through passing at least some spending bills on time, prompt a return to a more regularized process of legislating on Capitol Hill.

Top appropriators had embarked on the fiscal 2015 spending cycle confident and energized. Their chairmen, Mikulski and Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., were able to pull magic out of a hat in January, when they negotiated a $1.1 trillion omnibus that included fresh spending and policy directives for all 12 annual spending bills. The December budget deal handed them a discretionary top line from which to work from months early, and appropriators saw an opening to actually get at least some of their work done on time.

Appropriators burst into their fiscal 2015 work in March with aggressive schedules, fully aware that this was their best chance in years to enact bills ahead of the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

House Continues Work

Regardless of the events of the past month, some appropriators say not all is lost from their early burst of activity.

The House has continued to pass fiscal 2015 spending bills, even as work in the Senate has stalled. House appropriators and aides said such work could improve the House’s negotiating position with the Senate in the event that there’s a wrap-up fiscal 2015 omnibus in the lame-duck session.

“When you’ve already had a vote on amendments on the floor that make it into the bill, they have more weight during omnibus negotiations, no question,” said Republican Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “When you’re there in the room talking about an issue and you can say that the House has already spoken on this issue, it carries weight.”

Appropriations aides are expected to begin preparing quietly for any potential post-November omnibus negotiations, much as they did with fiscal 2014 work.

“The subcommittees are doing their work, so it’s not like we have to just do a CR,” said Patty Murray of Washington, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee. “A lot of the basic work’s been done.”

Some lawmakers, however, won’t concede that appropriations work is dead ahead of the elections. Some said a deal on amendments could be made on a three-bill “minibus” that then could be brought to the floor.

“I don’t want to say that” a CR is inevitable, said Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who chairs the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and is locked in a tight re-election race. “I think a lot of people think it is, but I’m holding out hope that we’re able to get back to some semblance of regular order and try to get it done as we’d hoped to.”