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From a Scream to a Whisper: Rescissions Push Goes Dark

Clock runs out on GOP effort to assuage Trump’s omnibus displeasure

Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After much sound and fury, President Donald Trump’s push to cut nearly $15 billion in unspent funds sitting in federal coffers ended with a whimper last week.

The House-passed rescissions plan was unceremoniously scuttled in the Senate on Wednesday when Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina cast the decisive vote against a discharge petition to advance the measure. With a 45-day clock expiring Friday — and senators long gone for the weekend — Republicans could no longer take advantage of filibuster protections under the 1974 budget law to advance the measure with a simple majority in the Senate.

That means the months-long push for rescissions, which started as an attempt to assuage Trump’s displeasure with the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill he signed in March, is effectively dead and buried. White House officials have indicated there’s no backup plan following the measure’s demise in the Senate, and additional rescissions bills — even to roll back some of the omnibus money, as they initially considered — don’t appear likely at this point.

“I don’t think we’ve thought through if it fails,” Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, said Tuesday.

Even before Burr landed a final dagger in the rescissions plan, senators were looking to dramatically scale back the already modest spending cuts to avoid procedural and political tripwires.

Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were in discussions over an amendment to remove $7 billion in proposed cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program — nearly half the total $14.7 billion package, as well as one of the most controversial provisions in the bill.

The CHIP rescissions would have violated a provision in the fiscal 2018 budget resolution that limited the use of “changes in mandatory programs,” or CHIMPS, which decrease budget authority for a given fiscal year but don’t actually reduce real spending or outlays over the next decade. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the $7 billion in CHIP cuts would not have resulted in any reduction in outlays.

The budget resolution set a cap of $17 billion in CHIMPS for fiscal 2018, which was already maxed out when Congress passed the omnibus package in March. That means the CHIP rescissions would have been subject to a Senate point of order anyway, requiring 60 votes to overturn.

Removing the CHIP rescissions would have chopped in half what many conservatives said was already a meager effort to reduce spending.

GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who co-sponsored a nearly identical Senate rescissions bill, was critical Wednesday of attempts to further minimize the spending cuts. “You can’t scale it below zero,” Kennedy said ahead of the Senate vote. “It’s already down to $1 billion out of $4.2 trillion [in total annual spending]. To call that a baby step is even an overstatement.”

Kennedy was referring to the CBO’s estimate that, overall, the $14.7 billion in cuts to budget authority would only reduce outlays by $1.1 billion over 10 years.

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Diminishing returns

The White House package had already been reduced once, before the House passed it 210-206 at the beginning of June.

Trump’s initial request for $15.2 billion in cuts, sent to Congress on May 8, was lowered to $14.7 billion when the Trump administration backed down on its proposals to rescind $252 million appropriated years ago to combat the Ebola virus abroad, leftover funds appropriated after Superstorm Sandy in 2013 and $10 million for an EPA water quality grant program. Republicans had balked at some of those proposals, jeopardizing House passage of the legislation.

The changes weren’t enough to get all 51 Senate Republicans on board.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only other Republican to vote against the motion on Wednesday, but she had signaled her opposition to the plan for weeks. Collins, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Transportation-HUD Subcommittee, said rescissions were largely the purview of appropriators and the administration was attempting to encroach on their turf.

Burr’s unexpected “no” vote, which tipped the final tally to 48-50, stemmed from his objection to stripping $16 million in unspent funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

An aide to Burr said he’d been denied a vote on an amendment to remove the cut, though senators would have been able to offer amendments at will in a “vote-a-rama” session after debate expired, if it had gotten that far. At a bipartisan press conference just that morning, Burr had called for permanently reauthorizing the fund, which helps states and localities develop outdoor recreational areas and is set to expire Sept. 30. So it may have been a little too soon for him to cast what would appear to be a favorable vote on cutting the program.

The objections from many members to various parts of the rescissions plan demonstrate how hard it is for Congress to cut tiny amounts of spending, even leftover funds that are largely not needed.

See it and raise

The final $14.7 billion plan was a small slice of the up to $50 billion in cuts that White House budget officials had discussed in April. It still wasn’t small enough for senators to swallow.

The rescissions process began, arguably, with a bang: a fiery omnibus signing ceremony in late March when Trump trashed the “ridiculous” spending package and vowed to never again sign such a massive and rushed bill.

It ended with mostly yawns Wednesday, when senators disposed of the rescissions package during a sleepy vote that stretched to some 90 minutes.

What happened next was fitting: the chamber promptly returned to work on a $147 billion fiscal 2019 spending package — 10 times the size of the doomed rescissions bill.