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House Democrats get a spending jump on the Senate

By marking up 2020 appropriations bills first, they aim to exert some leverage on spending caps talks

Appropriations are stalled in the Senate, in part because Chairman Richard C. Shelby has prioritized reaching agreement on disaster aid legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Appropriations are stalled in the Senate, in part because Chairman Richard C. Shelby has prioritized reaching agreement on disaster aid legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to start navigating a thicket of budget issues, including a stalled aid package for natural disaster victims and spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year.

Staff-level talks between the “four corners” of the congressional leadership and top White House aides have been taking place to try to bridge a wide gulf between the Trump administration and Democratic leaders on nondefense appropriations. Democrats are pushing for over $100 billion more than President Donald Trump wants for domestic and foreign aid programs in fiscal 2020, once various add-ons to the current spending caps, like overseas foreign assistance and 2020 census preparations, are factored in.

In the meantime, farmers and ranchers across the country, many of whom couldn’t plant crops this spring to replace disaster-related losses, are pleading for financial aid from Congress. “The livelihoods of farm families and the economic health of rural communities are at stake,” 135 farm groups and agricultural lenders wrote to Trump and congressional leaders April 19.

Aid to Puerto Rico has been the chief sticking point on the disaster aid packages, which range from $13.5 billion to $17.2 billion in size. Trump has been critical of Puerto Rican officials’ handling of prior disaster aid appropriations and has voiced reluctance to provide more. Without provisions benefiting Puerto Rico, Senate Democrats won’t provide the votes necessary to advance the measure in that chamber.

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But Senate Republicans came back from a meeting with Trump prior to the two-week spring break with renewed optimism they’d be able to reach a deal. Affected states like Georgia and Florida, represented by Senate Republicans, were relatively close calls for Trump in 2016. And Iowa, like other Midwest states hit hard by recent flooding, is always a presidential bellwether and one Trump needs to keep in his corner.

Lurking in the background is the statutory debt ceiling, which currently sits at just shy of $22 trillion, but can’t support any additional borrowing past late September or early October, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

While there’s time to spare, the White House wants a quick and “clean” deal to take the market-rattling debt limit issue off the table before there’s any chance of catastrophic default on U.S. obligations, whether to Treasury bondholders, Social Security beneficiaries or anything else. But there’s scant evidence either party is in the mood to act quickly to raise the national credit card limit, particularly after getting a fresh reminder Thursday, when the CBO’s new baseline budget outlook is published, that the country is headed for a record debt burden in the coming decades.

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Getting a jump on it

Democratic leaders have little incentive to resolve the debt ceiling neatly for Treasury while their favored nondefense programs languish in limbo. In a report accompanying legislation to raise the spending caps for the next two years, House Democrats wrote that their plan to raise topline nondefense funding by 5.7 percent above fiscal 2019, to $631 billion, would “allow an appropriate level of investment in projects and services to strengthen the Nation’s economic foundations and promote broad-based prosperity for American families.”

House Democrats “deemed” a combined spending target for appropriators before the recess, though Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey said she’ll honor the defense-nondefense split in the caps bill she co-authored with House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth.

Members of the Progressive Caucus opposed those numbers because defense would receive a greater allocation. But Lowey and Yarmuth agreed to the “parity principle” of equal dollar increases above the statutory spending caps and believe going further toward the most liberal members’ position would be a step back from good-faith negotiations with the Senate.

And by getting a jump on the Senate in marking up appropriations bills, House Democrats believe they can exert some leverage on the spending caps talks.

Subcommittee allocations haven’t yet been released, but applying the same 5.7 percent boost for all nondefense programs proportionally across the nondefense bills would imply a $188.3 billion allocation for the Labor-HHS-Education bill, which House appropriators will mark up in subcommittee Tuesday. That would be a $10.2 billion boost above fiscal 2019 levels, and 17 percent above Labor-HHS-Education spending enacted two years ago.

Generating support among health and education stakeholders early on could also assuage progressives’ concerns and also build momentum for talks with Senate Republicans.

Still, House Democrats acknowledge their proposed spending cap for nondefense may not be enough to meet the needs. They are adding a cap “adjustment” to make room for $7.5 billion in 2020 census funding that won’t eat into other programs.

And as part of the Military Construction-VA measure going to a subcommittee markup Wednesday, Democrats will lay out how they plan to deal with a $10 billion estimated need for veterans private medical care in light of a new law passed last year that shifts the costs to appropriators. Democratic leaders were ready to accept an amendment to the spending caps bill from Barbara Lee of California to add the veterans money, but they were forced to pull the measure anyway due to the progressives’ revolt.

A Legislative Branch subcommittee markup is also planned for Wednesday.

House appropriators are looking at marking up the Defense bill soon as well, though no date has been set. Energy-Water also could be one of the first several bills to be marked up. Lowey is aiming to complete markups by early June, leaving time for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer to bring all 12 bills to the floor before the end of June.

Priority on disaster aid

The Senate has not yet begun to mark up next year’s appropriations bills, or even settled on overall allocations for defense and nondefense spending, in part because Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby has prioritized reaching agreement on disaster aid legislation.

Republicans charge that reaching an accord has become more difficult because Democrats keep “moving the goal posts.” According to a Senate GOP aide, Trump made a major concession when he agreed to $600 million in food assistance to Puerto Rico that is contained in the GOP-written $13.5 billion package.

But as the two sides were getting closer to agreement, the GOP aide said, House and Senate Democrats went in the other direction, asking to cover 100 percent of the cost of Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance for Puerto Rico, which the aide estimated would cost $5 billion.

Senate Democrats rejected the accusation they are moving the goal posts, saying they made an offer March 4 to scale back assistance provided to Puerto Rico and Senate Republicans objected to it. A Senate Democratic appropriations aide charged Trump with “holding disaster aid hostage over a petty political grudge with the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

The Democratic aide said Department of Housing and Urban Development officials changed their minds and said Puerto Rico shouldn’t receive any Community Development Block Grant money to cover the FEMA cost-share for relief projects. Under a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy offered in early April, Democrats estimated Puerto Rico would receive $304 million.

However, a GOP aide said HUD told Republicans all along that none of the CDBG funds in the Senate Democrats’ amendment would go to Puerto Rico because ample CDBG funds already have been appropriated for the island territory.

The various aid packages would offer long-delayed relief to victims of hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters from California to the Southeast. The House passed an initial $14.2 billion package in January, only to watch it stall for months as the dispute over Puerto Rico intensified.

The new House Democratic offering contains an additional $3 billion to respond to flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes that ripped through Southeastern states this year. Schumer and Leahy followed up with the introduction of a companion Senate version on April 11.

Hoyer announced last week that the House will take up its disaster relief supplemental on the floor the week of May 6.

Correction 7:16 p.m. | This story has been corrected to revise totals in the above graphic.


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