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Appropriators Hope for Budget-Deal Relief From Sequester-Level Spending Caps

Top House appropriators are crossing their fingers for another budget deal that would raise the tight sequester-level spending caps, but in the meantime they will consider a set of funding allocations that seek compromise with the budget limits they’ve got.

The House Appropriations Committee is set to vote Wednesday on proposed fiscal 2016 spending allocations that would be close to current enacted levels, according to a draft plan obtained by CQ Roll Call. While the numbers suggest Republican committee leaders are serious about trying to negotiate with Democrats to pass as many regular appropriations bills as possible, it does not mean it will be a cakewalk for Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

The allocations, known as 302(b)s for the subsection of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act which requires them, would target some increases for the spending bills that fund science programs, veterans’ health care and the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, while staying under the fiscal 2016 statutory spending cap of $1.017 trillion.

Rogers is proposing to offset the increases by trimming spending for the bills that fund the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services, as well as the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency. He suggests cutting the Labor-HHS-Education and Financial Services bills, respectively, by about 2 percent and 7 percent to $153.05 billion and $20.25 billion.

His blueprint would also reduce funding for the Department of Homeland Security by nearly $400 million from the level approved in the fiscal 2015 wrap-up measure enacted in March. The $39.32 billion allocation is roughly on par with the funding the department received in fiscal 2014, after the DHS received a notable increase last year for border-control programs.

The draft document also suggests House GOP appropriators want to take advantage of a provision in the House and Senate budget resolutions that allows them to use a higher-than-expected allocation for the war-related Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to budget caps. The OCO spending level for Defense would be $88.4 billion for fiscal 2016, a significant jump from the $64 billion enacted for fiscal 2015. The State Department is also slotted for $7 billion in OCO funding.

Building Momentum

The numbers will be the starting point for the 12 appropriations subcommittees as they begin writing their annual bills over the next few months. While the figures afford a bird’s eye view of the House GOP’s priorities for the year, it is unclear which specific program or agency budgets are likely to be increased or cut. Those details won’t be available until appropriators release individual draft spending bills over the spring and summer

House appropriators are scheduled to vote Wednesday on the allocations following markups of the Energy-Water and Military Construction-VA spending measures. A committee spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about the draft figures.

Though Democrats will grumble about the allocations, particularly about the Labor-HHS figure, the fact Rogers is proposing numbers that stick so close to last year’s consensus levels signals an intention to write bills that can be enacted into law — or at least advanced to the president’s desk for a veto or signature. That’s a stark contrast from some past proposals from Rogers for dividing up money among his committee’s annual spending bills.

But he could still be challenged on several fronts.

For one, it is still unclear how much buy-in he will get from the committee’s Democrats.

Ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York has bristled over the sequester-level spending limit. “The majority’s allocations are fundamentally flawed, and passing appropriations bills under these insufficient levels will be difficult, if not impossible,” Lowey said in a Tuesday statement to CQ Roll Call. “Growing the economy and ensuring hardworking Americans have the opportunity to succeed requires smart investments, not mindless austerity.”

Later in the process, Rogers will face a group of House conservatives eager to try to attach tough policy riders to spending bills on the floor during open amendment debate could cost him critical Democratic votes, given that many of those ultra-conservatives will not vote for the underlying spending bills. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has also promised tough limitation language. And budget politics also threaten to complicate appropriations work.

Defense hawks, Democrats and the White House reject the sequester-level spending levels and are instead pushing for another bipartisan budget agreement in the mold of the 2013 deal negotiated by then-Budget Committee Chairmen Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. In a bid to prompt such talks, President Barack Obama has said he would not sign any spending measures that adhere to the statutory limits.

Down a Long Road

Any potential agreement is probably months away.

Rogers has acknowledged there are challenges ahead, starting with the spending limits written into the 2011 Budget Control Act, which essentially freezes discretionary spending for the third year in a row at $523 billion for defense programs and $493.5 billion for non-defense purposes.

“The number is extremely low. It’s going to be really tough to do bills,” said Rogers, now in his fifth year chairing the House Appropriations Committee.

He is moving forward this year following a familiar mantra: Write to the legal limit, but hope for more money later.

“We have to work under the assumption that our numbers won’t change. We’re bound by that,” Rogers said. “But the defense hawks are unhappy, nondefense supporters are unhappy with the numbers, so I think the pressure’s going to build at some point in time to try to do something about sequestration relief. When that happens or how it happens or even if it happens, no one knows.”

In that sense, Democrats on both sides of the Dome are on the same page.

“The fundamental issue is what we are going to do to raise the caps, and I’m working on a strategy now,” said Barbara A. Mikulski, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Kerry Young contributed to this report.

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