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More Than Just ‘Regular Order’ at Stake in Senate Spending Push

Most vulnerable Senators now have material to take on the campaign trail

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate approval of a $154.2 billion, four-bill spending package this week wasn’t just a banner moment for bipartisanship and the open debate and amendment process senators have been promoting.

There’s also a more practical reason: giving the most vulnerable senators on both sides of the aisle something to crow about on the campaign trail.

Atop the at-risk list are the 10 Democrats running for re-election in states President Donald Trump won during the 2016 presidential election, and GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who is seeking another six-year term in Nevada. Silver State voters backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and sent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to Washington in 2016.

Nearly all of those senators sent out news releases Wednesday touting how various provisions in the combo Agriculture, Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD bill will help their constituents. The measure passed 92-6 on Aug. 1.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, for instance, who represents North Dakota where Trump won 64 percent of the vote, released a 1,530-word statement highlighting 18 provisions she “fought for” and were included in the Senate-passed bill. Among those were amendments she co-sponsored to fund the Commission on Native Children and to appropriate $2 million extra for tribal detention facilities to hire additional staff.

Heitkamp, who is not a member of the Appropriations Committee, also cheered funding for the Farm Service Agency, which provides loans and oversees voluntary conservation programs, and Community Development Block Grants, which provide money to local governments for infrastructure needs and anti-poverty programs.

“This bipartisan spending package helps fund many of North Dakota’s most pressing priorities,” she said in a statement.

Heitkamp is in a tight race this year with GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, who represents the state’s sole congressional district. Recent polling puts the two in a nearly even race, but past election results don’t bode well for Heitkamp. North Dakota’s other senator, Republican John Hoeven, won with 78 percent of the vote in 2016, while Heitkamp only received 50 percent during her 2012 election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her race Tilt Republican.

Ability to govern

Molly Reynolds, a Congress expert at the Brookings Institution, said this year’s appropriations process represents an opportunity for both parties to benefit from showing their ability to govern.

“From the perspective of Republicans — who control the House, the Senate and the presidency — they have, I think, a greater incentive to appear like they are effective at legislating,” she said. “As for Democrats, in the Senate in particular, there are a large number of Senate Democrats who are running this fall in states where Trump won in 2016. Those Democratic senators want to be able to say to their voters that ‘I’m able to work across party lines, to get things done.’”

Heller, the most vulnerable Senate Republican running for re-election this year, sent out his own detailed, 1,015-word statement after the four-bill spending package passed the Senate this week. His office announced Heller “secured funding for several of Nevada’s priorities,” including $12 million to combat wildfires and protect against invasive species in and around Lake Tahoe; an extra $5 million for wildfire control on federal lands; and another $2 million for a program that protects water quality in the Colorado River, which according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority is the primary source of drinking water for the region.

Heller also touted a bipartisan amendment he successfully offered alongside Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio, also up for re-election in a Trump state, to provide an additional $5 million to support free tax preparation websites for low-income, elderly and disabled taxpayers and those who speak limited English. According to the Census Bureau, 30.3 percent of Nevadans over age 5 speak a language other than English at home.

Heller is facing a tough race against Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen; a poll released this week by Suffolk University and the Reno Gazette Journal showed Heller with a one-point lead — but the survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.4 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Nevada Senate race a Tossup, the only GOP incumbent to earn that distinction.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan all sent out their own statements hailing the four-bill package as a win for their states.

“This is what happens when folks put politics aside and work together to get things done,” Tester said in a statement. “These resources will support Montana’s booming outdoor economy, provide some certainty to Montana farmers and ranchers who are being threatened by a trade war, and address the housing shortage across rural America.”

Shutdown risk

While many voters may not be paying attention to the appropriations debate, voters do notice the high-profile budget issues that make headlines nationally, Reynolds said.

“I think if you follow Jon Tester on the campaign trail and asked people at a Jon Tester event if they knew the Senate had just done this, I think the answer would be ‘no.’ But, I do think voters have a sense of the high-level contours of this — mainly if the government is going to shut down,” Reynolds said.

Voters are also aware of funding for programs that benefit them and their families, even if they aren’t focused on the procedure of how that money moves from the Treasury to their community.

“It depends on which senator we’re talking about and which program, but there are certainly sources of federal spending that can be quite salient in particular races,” she said.

“Even if voters don’t have a sense that the Senate just passed the four-bill package,” she added, “passing the four-bill package means Heitkamp, or Tester … can go to voters and say I helped increase spending on this issue that helps our state.”

The recent four-bill measure followed passage of a three-bill, $146.6 billion appropriations package on June 25 by a vote of 86-5. That measure is currently in conference, another illustration of the “regular order” lawmakers have been celebrating. Senators issued similar news releases after that bill passed as well.

Of course, the prospect of a shutdown is still alive and well, despite the “greenest sprouts of bipartisanship that I have seen in this place in quite a while” on appropriations, as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., put it June 26.

That’s because Trump once again took to Twitter to threaten a shutdown unless he gets the full border wall funding he seeks for fiscal 2019, roughly $5 billion, or 0.4 percent of the $1.244 trillion in discretionary spending limits for next year set by the February budget deal.

If that shutdown comes before the elections, rather than in a “lame-duck” session, it may be all voters remember — with the happy talk and press releases of July and August a distant memory.

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