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Appropriations Bills Face Democratic Roadblock

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Moran’s among the Republican appropriators eager to see bills on the floor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It might be too early to put the nail in the coffin of the fiscal 2016 appropriations process, but get your hammer ready.

After the Senate Appropriations Committee met for its first full committee markup shortly before the Memorial Day break, Democrats made clear they will try and block any effort to pass the bills until a budget deal is reached allowing them to spend more money.

“Although we are moving the process along today, I want to put the Chairman on notice. The President will veto bills at this allocation, and Democrats will vote against motions to proceed to these bills on the Senate floor,” ranking Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said in a statement prepared for that May 21 meeting.

That development actually caught some GOP appropriators and their aides off guard, because Mikulski was slightly less direct in what she said during the markup itself — but it is in line with what’s been the emerging strategy of the Democratic leadership, in consultation with the White House.

Getting the 12 regular appropriations bills through the Senate has been a key tenet of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vision for getting the chamber functioning again, touting it in a post-election interview with CQ Roll Call.

“You betcha, passing individual appropriations bills is going to be a high priority. I know it will be time consuming, but I think it’s an important way for us to spend our time,” the Kentucky Republican, a senior appropriator, said last year.

One strategy McConnell could use to try to overcome a Democratic blockade would be to move to the annual defense spending bill after the Senate debates the Pentagon’s authorization bill. Republican sources on both sides of the Capitol doubt Democrats would unite to block taking up defense spending.

And appropriations subcommittee chairmen, such as Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, want their chance on the floor.

“I’ve heard the leader … say so many times that we’re going to pass a budget and we’re going to do appropriation bills, and I’m certainly going to be an ally of doing everything I can to see that happens,” Moran told CQ Roll Call. “I think appropriation bills ought to matter to every member of the Senate, because they matter to the country. They prioritize spending … but they also give us the opportunity to direct agencies and departments in how they should behave and what their rules and regulations are.”

Moran said he understood the need for a leadership-level debate about top-line spending levels. But, “We need to have that happen at the end,” he said. “If this process is going to get messed up, don’t mess it up at the beginning. Give us a chance to establish an appropriations process that lends itself to a bill that can then be worked under different parameters if the parameters change.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., whose Energy-Water spending bill was one of the two reported out of the committee that day, said he was surprised to read media reports of the Democratic block-everything strategy.

“If we just stop the train today, we’ll do no appropriations bills on the floor. Members of the Senate who are not on the Appropriations Committee will have no chance to have a say about the spending of a trillion dollars, and we’ll do just like we’ve done every year since 2010, which is not do our job,” Alexander said. “If we agree on 93 percent of what we’re going to spend, which is what the law says we should spend, I think we should go ahead and do our bills and then if we come to a point at the end of the process and there’s more money, we can adjust what we’ve done.”

Of course, what Alexander would call the other 7 percent is the real problem, and Democrats want to resolve it sooner rather than later.

“Republicans have a basic choice here. The process is going to break down at some point and it is in everyone’s interest to reach an agreement sooner rather than later,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “But ultimately, they have a choice to make, whether they want to come to the table and negotiate or whether they’re going to let this become another manufactured crisis.”

The “doc fix” deal earlier this year between Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could serve as a blueprint, Donovan said. That deal used cuts in President Barack Obama’s own budget and did not include a tax increase.

“What’s instructive to me is I think our budget can actually serve as a useful framework and sort of guideposts, if you will, for deals getting done, and we’re hopeful that we would see a similar kind of path here, that we laid out a way to end sequester, we showed what offsets can get done,” Donovan said. “I do think that there’s work that needs to happen on Capitol hill to take the next step. But I think it’s important to recognize that the president has a strong role to play here in a way that we can set the broad parameters, as I think we did with SGR, as we’ve done on the budget, and then engage at the point that Congress is ready to move forward.”

But Boehner’s office was quick to refute Donovan’s assessment of the state of play, indicating the Ohio Republican wanted to see Obama put more skin in the game.

“If the president wants to stop his sequester, he needs to show some leadership and indicate what types of additional reforms to mandatory spending he’s willing to accept — without tax hikes,” Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz told CQ Roll Call.

The House has been moving spending bills through regularly, but Boehner doesn’t have the kind of procedural challenges faced by McConnell.

Donovan has echoed previous administration statements about wanting to find revenue through closing tax loopholes.

As chairman of his party’s campaign committee last cycle, Moran was among the GOP senators highlighting the need to return to regular order out on the campaign trail.

“The process ought to work. If the Democrats stop that from occurring, shame on them — politically and for the good of the country, and then the blame ought to lie with them. If you want to do something about the budget caps, that’s a different issue,” Moran said.

Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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