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Senators Keeping Hope — and ‘Regular Order’ — Alive

That immigration debate hasn’t derailed spending may be cause for optimism

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby and Sen. Roy Blunt are among the lawmakers trying to keep the Senate’s productive streak alive. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby and Sen. Roy Blunt are among the lawmakers trying to keep the Senate’s productive streak alive. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Does the Senate’s sudden appetite for “regular order” have any chance of continuing through the summer, particularly when it comes to writing spending bills?

“One only hopes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “Appropriators seem to be able to get along better than other people.”

The South Carolina Republican chairs the subcommittee responsible for funding the State Department. His bill is one of the three on the schedule for Thursday’s Appropriations Committee meeting.

That the first amalgam of three spending bills to reach the Senate floor has not been upended by the headline-leading debate over the Trump administration policy shift that brought about the separation of migrant parents from their children may be the best testament to the interest of senators in making the process work.

“I laughingly said to Chairman Shelby, ‘I’m holding back some of the greatest amendments on earth just so the Appropriations Committee can prove that it can do business,’” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.

The Illinois Democrat is a senior member of the spending panel, as well as the ranking Democrat on the Defense subcommittee. Alabama Republican Richard C. Shelby became chairman of both panels earlier this year.

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Balancing act

Shelby’s efforts to keep the process on track included a Monday meeting at the White House. He joined Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia to speak with President Donald Trump about border security, a key piece of Capito’s bill and which is scheduled for full committee consideration Thursday.

Trump, of course, has expressed a desire for some $25 billion for construction of a wall at the southwestern border. Shelby said the senators made clear to the president their intent to continue the bipartisan work on spending to try to avoid a shutdown.

“Of course, the president’s focused on the whole border,” Shelby told Roll Call on Tuesday. “Like all presidents, he’d want it done today, you know. And Congress is different, a step at a time. We told him that.”

Durbin said a much smaller amount of wall-related funding in the fiscal 2019 Homeland Security measure had been worked out on a bipartisan basis, avoiding an obvious flash point.

It’s also possible that Wednesday’s defeat of a Republican effort to rescind past funding as requested by the Trump administration will help the process.

Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy had warned against passing the rescissions plan because it could undermine the budget agreement from earlier this year. He lauded the rejection, 48-50, of a motion to discharge the House-passed package from committees in the Senate, a move that effectively blocked a floor vote.

“The Senate has reinforced the bipartisan, bicameral budget deal struck by Congress four months ago by rejecting President Trump’s shortsighted rescission package,” the Vermont Democrat said in a statement. “The message that this vote sends at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will be heard loudly and clearly.”

Moving on

The Senate quickly got back to working on spending legislation after what turned out to be one long vote on cutbacks.

Majority Whip John Cornyn said Wednesday afternoon he expected the Senate to hold final votes on the three-bill spending package before shutting off the chamber lights for the week.

“We had this temporary diversion on the rescissions package, so we’re now back on the bill and hopefully we’ll get that done this week,” the Texas Republican said.

“I think we’ll know more about how the year looks if we can successfully get through the first group of bills, or so,” Sen. Roy Blunt said. “Let’s just hope we, this week, are able to move this package of three bills off the floor and have an established pattern we can repeat.”

The Missouri Republican, a member of leadership, is also chairman of the subcommittee that drafts the often-contentious spending bill funding Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Senators know the goodwill could disappear at any time, but for now, even some of the most contentious Appropriations Committee measures are on track. Durbin said he and Shelby are  even “going to be ready” to move a Defense spending bill.

In addition to his full committee role, Leahy is the Democratic appropriator with whom Graham works the most closely in overseeing the subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

“I’m really pleased with Sen. Leahy. He’s great to work with. He’s trying to find a result,” Graham said. “It’s a chance for Democrats and Republicans to do something together. We’ve got to run the government. You can always make it better; it’s an endless quest.”

The progress on spending bills is continuing just after the Senate worked through and passed the fiscal 2019 defense authorization, despite battles that restricted amendment votes.

How far those good feelings extend beyond the spending measures will likely be tested again next week, with the Senate planning to take up a reauthorization of farm and nutrition programs before the July Fourth recess.

Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts has been looking forward to bringing the bipartisan legislation to the floor — perhaps in a similarly truncated fashion.

“I’m open to talking to anybody about the farm bill. Usually, you talk to any member of Congress or a senator about a farm bill, there’s about an 11-seconds attention span,” the Kansas Republican said Wednesday when asked about his willingness to discuss concerns raised by some conservatives in the House, where the farm bill has been held up over the immigration debate.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.