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House puts off vote on spending caps deal; adopts ‘deeming’ resolution

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced the spending caps bill would be punted until at least after the two-week recess. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced the spending caps bill would be punted until at least after the two-week recess. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House set an overall spending cap of nearly $1.3 trillion for appropriators in that chamber to write their fiscal 2020 bills, adopting a “deeming resolution” on Tuesday as part of the rule governing floor debate on separate spending caps legislation — although that legislation hit a snag on Tuesday. 

The tally was 219-201, with no Republicans voting for the rule and seven Democrats voting ‘no.’

Trouble on the rule boded ill for the House leadership-backed bill to set discretionary limits for the next two years, however. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters after the rule vote that the spending caps legislation wouldn’t come to the floor before the chamber’s two-week recess.

House appropriators can still write their bills at the underlying measure’s levels in the meantime, though it doesn’t resolve the problem of avoiding another government shutdown and potential across-the-board cuts if President Donald Trump doesn’t sign legislation to raise the caps. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he has discussed spending levels with Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in hopes of devising a path forward.

“I spoke with the president last Thursday and the speaker this morning, and we’ve agreed to put together at the staff level a group to begin discussing the possibility of reaching a two-year caps deal so we can move ahead hopefully with some kind of regular appropriations process,” McConnell said.

Ultimately both chambers and the White House will need to agree on defense and nondefense spending caps, or else steep cuts from the current fiscal year will take effect.

At the same time, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said the House Democratic leadership-backed bill to raise discretionary spending caps won’t pass the House unless it’s amended to allow more nondefense funding over the next two years.

“We do think that if we’re going to go negotiate, we should be negotiating from our strongest place and our strongest place is saying we want more nondefense spending. So that’s where many of us are at,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said after a House Democratic Caucus meeting.

Pocan and his fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said their members wouldn’t vote for the underlying bill unless the chamber adopts Jayapal’s amendment to add $67 billion combined to nondefense limits in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

Jayapal’s amendment, which was made in order by the Rules Committee on Monday, would create equal spending caps for defense and nondefense accounts in both years — or $664 billion each in fiscal 2020 and $680 billion each the following year.

The Democratic leadership has already compromised with liberal members of their caucus by agreeing to back an extra $10 billion in fiscal 2020 and $12 billion in fiscal 2021 for private medical care programs at the Veterans Health Administration. That amendment, by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., was also made in order Monday night by Rules.

“They did find some extra money in the Barbara Lee [amendment] to try to address about $10 billion. If I was leadership, I would find 22 more and call it a day,” Pocan said. “But I’m not leadership.”

Blue Dogs bark

An additional problem for Democratic leaders is that members of the 27-member moderate Blue Dog coalition are opposed to Jayapal’s amendment, according to a senior Democratic aide, and aren’t happy about the underlying caps bill, either. Six of the seven ‘no’ votes on the rule’s adoption Tuesday were Blue Dog members.

At least a dozen Blue Dogs find the caps bill “very problematic” because of its spending increases, the aide said, but it is unclear whether they will mount a unified effort to defeat it. The aide said Blue Dogs think leadership should be putting pressure on the progressives to back down, because the direction they are pushing the party in spells trouble for Democrats who will seek reelection in more conservative districts.

Earlier Tuesday, Hoyer downplayed caucus divisions after the morning meeting, putting the onus on the White House for declining to deal on spending caps. Without an eventual agreement, the current-law caps would be enforced through across-the-board cuts, known as a sequester, slicing next year’s budget by $125 billion below the current year, or 10%. Defense would be cut by $71 billion, and nondefense by $54 billion.

“We need to pass budget cap legislation. Either today or at some point in time in the future. Now, unfortunately the administration clearly is not very interested in coming to a responsible agreement on a cap and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Hoyer. “If we’re going to get agreement, we need agreement between the House, the Senate and the president. That’s the reality.”

House Democrats have already punted on taking up a formal budget resolution for fiscal 2020, due to broad divisions within the caucus on the direction of taxes and spending over the next decade.

The idea was to bridge those divides by focusing only on discretionary spending for the next two fiscal years, though that’s proving a difficult lift as well. Democratic leaders feel their negotiating position will be undercut if they can’t pass the caps-raising bill.

“Obviously any caucus can bring down any bill and we have to figure out if we’re going to be able to govern or not, and this is the first test of it,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said earlier Tuesday.

The Kentucky Democrat said if the bill does not have enough votes to advance, “I think it’s going to be harmful if we aren’t able to do this because I think it minimizes our leverage in negotiations with the Senate and the White House.”

“We think these numbers [in the underlying bill] are the ones that position us best with the Senate and White House,” Yarmuth added.

‘Deeming’ the topline

Despite ongoing divisions on the caps bill, House Democrats were nearly united in adopting the rule to “deem,” or automatically set, a topline discretionary spending figure for House appropriators that aligns with the $1.295 trillion in the underlying legislation.

The rule for floor debate sets parameters for considering both the spending caps bill and legislation to restore Obama-era net neutrality rules the chamber will begin debating Tuesday. Adoption of the rule also resulted in adoption of the deeming resolution without a separate vote.

The deeming resolution would allow for the same “cap adjustments” in Yarmuth’s bill, including Overseas Contingency Operations funds for the Pentagon and State Department, money for the 2020 census and for IRS tax enforcement.

Adoption of the resolution means irrespective of what happens with the spending caps legislation on the floor, House appropriators could start writing fiscal 2020 bills at the levels preferred by the Democratic leadership.

“We just got the numbers deemed in that bill so the appropriators can work, and that means there’s not as much urgency for us to pass the caps deal,” Yarmuth said. Some holdouts on the bill appeared to agree with that perspective.

“I think in many ways this is a great experiment in fantasy Congress, kind of like fantasy football,” Pocan said earlier Tuesday. “It’s not necessarily as real as we’re being told.”

Pocan didn’t express a view on the rule, though he noted appropriators can still bring spending bills to the floor after May 15 under current law, even without a deeming resolution.

Meanwhile Hoyer reiterated his desire to move all 12 fiscal 2020 appropriations bills out of the House by June 30. No decision has yet been made about whether those bills will be considered individually or in bunches, though Hoyer seemed to be leaning in the latter direction.

“The Republicans adopted a process where they put them in so-called minibuses. It’s a more efficient process, so that it allows you to, in a shorter period of time, consider those bills. So there’s a lot of discussion about doing that. My own view is that’s probably a good way to get them done,” Hoyer said.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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