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Outside Kavanaugh Cacophony, Congress Faces Looming Deadline on Government Spending

Despite steady progress this year, lawmakers have little time to pass funding bills

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., talks with reporters in the Capitol’s Senate subway before the Senate Policy luncheons on August 28, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., talks with reporters in the Capitol’s Senate subway before the Senate Policy luncheons on August 28, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The multiday media circus surrounding the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh notwithstanding, Congress is facing a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, with appropriators struggling to work out their differences on fiscal 2019 spending. 

There are only 11 legislative days this month when the House and Senate are both scheduled to be in session. That means there isn’t much floor time in either chamber to vote on what could be as many as three conference reports with spending totaling more than $1 trillion, even if the legislation is privileged in the Senate and the House limits debate.

That could result in more weekend work and late nights as senators try to convince their House colleagues to drop policy language objectionable to Democrats. House Republicans, meanwhile, will need to keep the spending bills conservative enough to appeal to their members.

Even with the Senate’s bipartisan streak and leadership focused on the process, key appropriators aren’t sure how many of the 12 bills can become law before the fiscal year ends and midterm elections fever takes over Washington.

“I really don’t know,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I know we can do it here and we’ve demonstrated it here. The House, I can’t figure out.”

One of Leahy’s concerns is the House Republican Conference’s unofficial “Hastert rule.” The phrase refers to the former Republican speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, who did not want to bring a bill up for a floor vote unless a majority of the conference supported it. Conservative Republicans in that chamber are unhappy with the $18 billion increase in nondefense discretionary spending for fiscal 2019 included in the two-year budget law enacted in February.

GOP lawmakers have mostly supported the five nondefense spending bills brought to the House floor, in part because House appropriators added conservative policy language to the legislation. But those provisions will likely be stripped out during conference negotiations to ensure the bills can pass the Senate, where Democrats are required to advance legislation.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby is also concerned about the House.

“If the House works with us as expeditiously as we were working, or close to it, we will fund most of the government. If they don’t, then we’ll reach an impasse,” the Alabama Republican said.

Leahy said the fact that he’s a “liberal Democrat” and Shelby is a “conservative Republican” may help get their colleagues on board with the final spending bills.

But several hurdles remain — even for the less controversial bills.

Shutdown deadline

To start, appropriators must shuffle money among the 12 bills to account for differences between the House and Senate versions without exceeding the $1.244 trillion discretionary spending cap set in the budget law. House leadership must decide how it wants to handle the Agriculture, Labor-HHS-Education and Transportation-HUD spending bills, which have passed the Senate and are being pre-conferenced, despite not having come to the House floor.

And last, but certainly not least, President Donald Trump must sign the bills into law — or risk a Republican Congress overriding his veto to stave off a partial government shutdown just weeks before the midterm elections.

First out of the gate in September will likely be the three-bill spending package that includes the Energy-Water, Legislative Branch and Military Construction-VA bills. That conference report could be approved by appropriators as early as this week. 

Two more conference reports are likely to follow, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the final bills will have to compete with other priorities for floor time.

“It won’t surprise you to know that I’m concerned about September,” McConnell said last week. “We have, I hope, three conference reports on minibuses. I hope, a conference report on the farm bill. I hope, an up or down vote on a bipartisan opioid agreement. And the confirmation of Justice-to-be Kavanaugh. So we have a full plate for September.”

The scarcity of floor time means that any spending bills conferees do approve could be attached to an expected continuing resolution that will likely advance the last week of September.

That would likely help the vote situation in the House — where a vote against such a large package would mean a vote against keeping the government open.

Having the Defense spending bill on that package would help add votes, but negotiations have only begun on that measure and the Labor-HHS-Education bill.

For now, both bills have momentum.

“I think there’s going to be a strong desire by the administration to try and get Defense done without a CR, and that will lend at least a sense of urgency to getting Labor-H done as well, because you’re not going to just get Defense on its own,” House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole said, adding that the Defense spending bill is “a heck of a locomotive to be attached to.”

The Oklahoma Republican said he doesn’t expect the House will bring his subcommittee’s bill to the floor, but he believes a final version could be sent to the White House before the end of the month.

“I just don’t think there’s the time,” Cole said. “I would love to do it, but the objective here is to get this thing done by Sept. 30.”

On Tuesday evening, the House agreed to go to conference on the Fiscal 2019 Defense and Labor-HHS-Education appropriations package when it agreed, by voice vote to Cole’s motion to request a conference with the Senate.

Conservative demands

A key obstacle to getting a conference report through the House will be opposition among social conservatives to removing House policy language that would block federal funding in that bill from going to Planned Parenthood as well as codify an administration policy that protects health care workers who refuse to perform, or assist, in abortions because of their religious beliefs.

The House bill also eliminates $286 million in Title X family planning grants and $108 million for a teen pregnancy prevention program.

If retained, those provisions would likely doom the bill in the Senate.

Appropriators are also focused on getting the Defense spending bill enacted before the new fiscal year begins. But neither Shelby, who also chairs the Defense subcommittee, nor Defense Appropriations ranking member Richard J. Durbin can say if negotiations will finish in time.

“I’m praying that that is the answer,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Senate Financial Services Appropriations Chairman James Lankford is more confident negotiations on his portion of the Agriculture, Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD spending package will wrap up before the end of September.

“That’s still our plan,” he said.

Lankford spoke before Trump announced Aug. 30 that he would cancel raises and locality pay boosts for federal civilian workers that were to take effect on Jan. 1, which could complicate the outlook for the Financial Services bill. The Senate included a 1.9 percent raise in its bill, while the House was silent in its version.

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, bets that Congress will pass at least five of the appropriations bills and possibly more before Oct. 1, but he adds that the bills that are left over will make for a difficult lame duck session.

“I think they’re obviously under the gun to get at least a couple of those mini packages put together and down to the president,” the former top GOP Senate aide said.

Hoagland anticipates the Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch package will get passed by both chambers, as well as the Interior-Environment and Financial Services bills. He isn’t sure about the Agriculture and Transportation-HUD bills; those two are part of the four-bill package passed by the Senate, but they have not been passed in the House.

House GOP staff have discussed the possibility of conferencing the Defense bill and attaching it to a stopgap funding measure, leaving out the Labor-HHS-Education bill that is part of the Senate-passed two bill package. It’s unclear whether House GOP leaders are considering that strategy, which would run into opposition in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats both agreed to package Defense with Labor-HHS-Education.

“The big unknown for me is this Defense — sticking it on the CR, conferencing Defense and pulling Labor-HHS out of the Senate-passed [bill] and moving forward,” Hoagland said. “I see that as one that is problematic, but who knows in the current environment.”

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