For spending bills, now comes the hard part

Both chambers need to reach agreement before Sept. 30 to avoid a repeat of the 35-day partial government shutdown

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Homeland Security Appropriations chairwoman, said that getting her committee’s spending bill enacted will be ‘difficult.’ (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Homeland Security Appropriations chairwoman, said that getting her committee’s spending bill enacted will be ‘difficult.’ (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2019 at 5:00am

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration proved last week that they can work together by reaching an agreement to avoid default on the nation’s financial obligations and prevent $125 billion in spending cuts that could disrupt the longest U.S. economic expansion on record.

Assuming the House-passed budget pact is cleared by the Senate this week and signed into law, lawmakers still have their work cut out for them.

[House sends spending caps, debt limit bill to Senate]

The two chambers need to reach agreement on the 12 annual spending bills to flesh out the budget accord and avoid a repeat of the 35-day partial government shutdown of last December and January.

The fiscal 2020 spending bills contain dozens of sticky issues, some of which have been solved before and some of which negotiators will have to wade through for the first time — all amid a background of increasing partisanship ahead of the 2020 elections.

“There are a lot of potential bumps along the road,” said Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, a Senate Appropriations member.

The good news is that the Democratic House and Republican Senate set a precedent for working out their differences on spending bills in February when they reached agreement on seven of the fiscal 2019 spending bills, including the contentious Homeland Security measure. The other five spending bills for the current fiscal year passed under unified Republican government but received broad bipartisan support.

The bad news is there’s a major calendar mismatch between House and Senate appropriators.

Work on fiscal 2020 spending bills has been ongoing in the House for months. The House Appropriations Committee has marked up all 12 spending bills, 10 of which the chamber passed by mostly party-line votes.

The panel will need to rework several of those spending bills to reduce nondefense accounts by $15 billion to reflect the bicameral spending caps agreement, while defense-related accounts will get an extra $5 billion. They’ll also likely have to strike through many of the left-leaning policy riders that made the bills so appealing to liberal Democrats.

The Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t yet released any of its bills after opting to wait until congressional leaders and the White House reached a universal agreement. That decision is set to lead to a flurry of activity during the August recess and the three weeks leading up to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“We hope to hit the ground running when we come back in early September,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said.

The Alabama Republican is likely to issue subcommittee allocations within the next couple of weeks so that subcommittee chairs and ranking members can hash out bill text during the five-week break.

[Next week, Senate will consider budget deal, confirm judges and two senior officials]

For now, it seems unlikely that all 12 appropriations bills will get markups, with Shelby calling that benchmark “ambitious.”

There’s not yet a final decision about whether those bills will go to the Senate floor or if the House and Senate panels will begin negotiating the bills immediately.

Repeat package?

There is some hope that, despite the late start, the House and Senate could still pass the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education spending bills together and on time, similar to last year.

Shelby said he and Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy have begun talking about pairing those two bills together, possibly with one more, with the goal of enacting them into law by Oct. 1.

Energy-Water Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander said he would like to see his panel’s bill bundled into the potential first package of Labor-HHS-Education and Defense.

The Tennessee Republican said he was already working with ranking member Dianne Feinstein to make sure the legislation is ready to go, if Shelby and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are looking for candidates.

“Our staffs have done a lot of preliminary work. We want to be at the head of the line, and we hope to have our bill written and ready for consideration by the Appropriations Committee when the Senate returns in September,” Alexander said. “And I’m sure that some bills will be passed by the end of September. We’d like for ours to be one of them.”

There is also strong support from other appropriators for pairing Defense and Labor-HHS-Education, including Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt, who said the combination “creates the likelihood that that will hopefully get done before Oct. 1.”

“I think we’ll generally be ready to start marking up as soon as we get back in September, and hopefully put the first couple of bills on the floor soon after that,” the Missouri Republican said.

Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Richard J. Durbin said Democrats would also likely support pairing those two bills.

“It’s a good starting point because those are two bills of importance to both caucuses, and if we can move them together I think it will avoid concerns that one is going to be passed and the other not,” said the Illinois Democrat, who’s also the minority whip. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with just a few weeks in September.”

Familiar problem child

Most appropriators agree that this year’s problem child will once again be the Homeland Security spending bill.

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito said getting that bill enacted will be “difficult.”

“The wall money is obviously a point of contention, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] beds are a point of contention and the situation in general, because it’s deteriorated so much that it puts a lot of pressure on my bill,” Capito said.

One new issue this year that could divide some Republican appropriators is whether to restrict when and how the administration can reprogram money, especially for border barrier construction.

During the last round of spending talks, Republicans and Democrats agreed to provide $1.3 billion in construction funds during fiscal 2019.

President Donald Trump signed that package but then declared a national emergency and sought to divert $6.7 billion in spending from other programs for the border wall effort.

The maneuver frustrated members of both parties, leading lawmakers to pass a resolution to terminate the emergency declaration — bringing about the first veto of Trump’s presidency.

Several GOP appropriators voted to disapprove of Trump’s actions, including Alexander, Blunt, Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins, Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran, Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Trump’s decision launched a court battle that is likely to continue for several months, and led the House Appropriations Committee to add language to several of its bills to restrict the administration’s reprogramming authority.

G. William Hoagland, a former Senate Budget Committee GOP staff director and Senate leadership aide, said he doesn’t expect the various disputes to lead to another shutdown. But he cautioned that it could lead to a series of stopgap spending measures.

“I think this is setting us up for a very long, cold winter going into post-Labor Day that is going to become very contentious,” Hoagland said. “I don’t think there’ll be a shutdown. I think the president and Republicans learned their lesson on that this year.”

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Bruce Evans, a former GOP staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that despite new policy language in the House bills and the possibility of drawn-out conference talks, it’s unlikely any “poison pill” riders will survive the final bargaining.

“Status quo is a powerful argument in these negotiations as you get down to it,” Evans said. “My guess is the [White House] draws a pretty hard line on that sort of thing and will bargain pretty hard to not be under any new restrictions than they were last year.”