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$177.1 Billion Labor-HHS-Education Moves Forward With Family Separation Changes

House Appropriations has approved 11 of 12 fiscal 2019 spending measures

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole says it was “just not helpful to turn a funding bill into a debate over gun control.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole says it was “just not helpful to turn a funding bill into a debate over gun control.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Appropriations Committee late Wednesday evening approved, 30-22, a $177.1 billion fiscal 2019 bill to fund the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

The committee has now approved 11 of its 12 fiscal 2019 spending measures, following the marathon 13-hour markup of the massive nondefense bill that left lawmakers from both parties exasperated at various points. The debate covered family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, gun research funding, abstinence-only sex education and thorny political issues around religious adoption agencies.

While the discussion over the 50 amendments considered was often contentious, and dozens of amendments from Democrats to restore funding to programs were rejected, the committee adopted numerous bipartisan amendments related to family separations. A bipartisan manager’s amendment increased proposed funding for various health programs.

It’s unclear whether House leaders will bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Last year, the version that advanced from committee passed on the House floor when packaged with several other appropriations measures.

Senate appropriators want to combine a Labor-HHS-Education bill with the Defense spending measure. The House already passed its Defense appropriations bil. However, if the Senate passes a combined bill and sends it to the House, the House might skip a floor vote on the Labor-HHS-Education measure and head straight to conference.

The Republican overseeing the bill, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, says he would like the Labor-HHS-Education bill ultimately linked to the Defense bill because military spending will attract broad support.

Given the nondefense spending bill’s size, which some conservative members might oppose, Republicans likely would need Democrats’ support to pass it as a stand-alone measure. But Republicans crafting the bill included restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood, the 2010 health care law, and other policy provisions that Democrats oppose.

An attempt to restore $286 million for the Title X family planning program, which has been controversial because of grants that go to Planned Parenthood, was defeated 22-29; an attempt to reverse the Planned Parenthood funding restriction received the same tally.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, panned the process as a waste of time. “The Senate is passing bipartisan bills and avoiding poison pill riders instead of, my friends, just wasting time on partisan bills with no chance of enactment,” Lowey said.

Lowey and other Democrats also objected to the bill’s overall funding level. Overall nondefense discretionary funding is set to increase by $18 billion for fiscal 2019 under a budget agreement Congress reached earlier this year, and Democrats argued that the Labor-HHS-Education measure should get at least $5 billion of that increase. That would be in proportion with the measure’s size and share of nondefense funding. Instead, the bill would provide around the same levels of funding as in fiscal 2018.

Migrant family separations

Among the amendments adopted Wednesday was language to overturn the 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores agreement that prevents undocumented children from being held together with their parents in detention for more than 20 days while awaiting immigration court proceedings.

The amendment from Cole faced partisan debate before being adopted, 31-21. The amendment, which essentially mirrored language in an immigration bill that the House rejected in June, would overturn the legal decision that the Trump administration argues required it to separate families. While the amendment would allow families to stay together, it would also allow them to keep children in detention indefinitely.

All committee Republicans voted for Cole’s amendment; Henry Cuellar of Texas was the only Democrat to support it.

While the debate was often heated, there were bipartisan areas of agreement. The manager’s amendment included language to allow HHS to accept donations of medical supplies, clothing, school supplies and more for the unaccompanied children in HHS’ care. It would also require HHS to provide Congress with regular reports about how many migrant children are in its care, how long they’ve been in custody, and their reunification status.

Democratic Rep. Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts said she heard from two women who were separated from their children that HHS contractors facilitating the reunification asked them about their religious beliefs. In response, she offered an amendment to prevent HHS and its contractors from asking religious questions during family reunification evaluations. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

There were 16 amendments related to the family separation issue, all but one offered by Democrats. Many of them were adopted by voice vote, including:

• An amendment that would require HHS to release a formal plan for reuniting children with their parents who had been forcibly separated under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

• An amendment to require that siblings in HHS custody remain together.

• An amendment that would prevent HHS from administering any medications to a child in its custody unless he or she received a physical and mental health evaluation.

• Language that would require the HHS inspector general to review the administration’s policy on family separations.

• A provision that would steer around $10 million in mental health funding toward counseling for minors separated from their families.

• An amendment that would require a report from HHS on the number of pre-literate children in its custody and a list of languages that they speak.

• An amendment to require the Office of Refugee Resettlement to protect the genetic information of individuals whose DNA is tested for the purposes of reunification.

More for CDC

The manager’s amendment also moved money around within the bill, including providing an additional $50 million for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention programs, and around $75 million more for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Overall, the bill would provide around $6.9 billion for the CDC and $5.7 billion for SAMHSA, both increases over last year. Those increases would go in part to support new programs aimed at promoting maternal and infant health, and enhanced surveillance for neurological diseases.

While on paper the CDC’s overall budget would be lower than in fiscal 2018, that’s because the bill would transfer funding for a strategic national stockpile of medical supplies elsewhere within HHS, and would increase funding for the stockpile. The bill would also establish an emergency use “infectious disease rapid response fund” for the CDC, and the manager’s amendment would provide $325 million for the fund, compared to $300 million in the original bill.

One issue the bill wouldn’t specifically fund is research into gun violence. The committee rejected, 20-32, an amendment from Lowey to direct $10 million in the CDC’s injury prevention account toward that research. While the administration has said it would conduct the research if given the funding, GOP members argued that they didn’t want to direct the administration too much. They also were concerned about stirring controversy if the bill comes to the House floor. The bill would provide $690 million to the CDC division that would carry out that research, a $40 million increase over fiscal 2018, so it is possible that the administration could perform it.

An amendment from Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, which was narrowly adopted, 26-25, underscored how NIH research translates into drug development. The amendment would require HHS to report on the most frequently purchased and most expensive drugs in Medicare and Medicaid, as well as list which ones received significant government research subsidies. Republicans Harold Rogers of Kentucky, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Evan Jenkins of West Virginia and David Young of Iowa joined Democrats to support it.

The parties sparred over an amendment from GOP Rep. Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama. The amendment would prevent states from denying federal funding for child welfare services, such as adoption and foster care, to faith-based organizations because of religious requirements such as stipulating children be placed with a married heterosexual couple, for example. While Republicans argued that current policy discriminates against religious organizations, Democrats said a change would result in discrimination against same-sex families or those of other faiths. It was adopted along party lines, 29-23.

The original draft bill would provide $71 billion for the Education Department overall, a $43 million increase over fiscal 2018. It would provide $12.1 billion for the Labor Department, an $89 million decrease compared to fiscal 2018, and $89.2 billion for the Health and Human Services Department, a $1.1 billion increase over fiscal 2018. Within HHS, the bill would provide about $1.25 billion more than the $37.1 billion NIH got in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending measure.

Watch: Thousands March in DC to Protest Family Separation

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