Skip to content

Border wall, other disputes sidetrack Senate spending work

Panel's markup is delayed; government funding lapses on Oct. 1

Sen. Richard Durbin wants to move forward on military spending, but is unsure if that will happen. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard Durbin wants to move forward on military spending, but is unsure if that will happen. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate’s appropriations process fell into disarray Tuesday after a scheduled markup was abruptly postponed in a dispute over policy riders, and a fight over the border wall threatened to hold up defense spending.

Democrats were also resisting the GOP majority’s proposed subcommittee allocations that are needed to draft the 12 fiscal 2020 spending bills. And some lawmakers said there was still no agreement between the House and Senate on the length of a stopgap funding measure that will be needed to avoid a government shutdown come next month, when the new fiscal year begins.

Taken together, the day’s developments suggest a rocky road to get even parts of the government funded on time, as Congress succeeded at doing last year until the border wall funding impasse led to the longest partial shutdown in history.

Plans to advance a draft Labor-HHS-Education spending bill through subcommittee Tuesday collapsed in a partisan spat over abortion policy. Democrats made clear they were preparing to offer an amendment at the full Appropriations Committee markup Thursday that would block the Trump administration from enforcing a rule preventing federal grant money from going to organizations that offer abortions or refer patients for abortions.

Appropriators had been hoping to avoid disputes on such policy riders this year because of a side agreement reached as part of the new two-year budget deal enacted last month that prohibits “poison pill” policy riders unless they have backing from top congressional leaders of both parties and President Donald Trump. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on what constitutes a “poison pill” that would be barred by the budget deal, aides said.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, said the Title X family planning program has “historically had strong support from Republicans and Democrats” and deserves a vote in the full committee Thursday through an amendment she plans to offer. “If Senate Republicans are more willing to listen to President Trump than women and patients in their own states, they should own up to it and be willing to let their votes show it,” she said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of backtracking on the bipartisan budget deal. Democrats have “tried to wiggle out of an agreement we all signed off on,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., remained undeterred Tuesday as he pushed his fiscal 2020 defense spending bill through his Defense subcommittee on a voice vote

“This year, we are off to a late start,” Shelby said, with none of the 12 bills through committee and only three weeks left before the new fiscal year begins. “But with the certainty of the budget agreement; stable, two-year funding, and the decision by all parties to eliminate poison pills, I see no reason why we cannot repeat the success of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations process.”

Raid on health, education funds?

That sense of optimism, however, was not shared by the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. Durbin said Democrats were prepared to use Thursday’s full committee markup to fight the Trump administration’s effort to divert billions of dollars from Pentagon accounts to help finance a wall on the southern border. The Pentagon last week announced plans to begin moving $3.6 billion from military construction projects, while another $2.5 billion could come from counterdrug operations funding.

“Congress cannot and should not be silent when the power of the purse is undermined in this way,” Durbin said. He added that panel Democrats haven’t yet decided whether they can support the Defense bill at Thursday’s scheduled full committee markup. “That depends on what happens between now and the full committee,” he said, pointing out a partisan divide remains over the GOP plan for divvying up fiscal 2020 funds among the 12 subcommittees. 

“The unfortunate thing is we believe money has been taken out of HHS for the purpose of building the wall. And it’s money that is needed in that appropriations bill, so yes, there are genuine concerns here,” Durbin said. Murray told reporters Monday that she had concerns about her subcommittee’s allocation, known as a 302(b), but would not divulge the topline number.

Shelby acknowledged there was not yet agreement with committee Democrats on the 302(b). “We’re not there yet,” he said after speaking with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., before the Defense subcommittee markup.

Schumer later on Tuesday contended that Republicans were planning to provide $12 billion for the border wall, including the administration’s $5 billion Homeland Security request, the $3.6 billion military construction funding transfer and another $3.6 billion to “backfill” the delayed military projects in fiscal 2020.

“That’s not going to happen,” Schumer said. “That’s what’s causing all their problems.“ 

Shelby disputed the Democrats’ claim that Republicans were planning to take money from the Labor-HHS-Education bill and shift it to Homeland Security, however, saying the allocation for Labor-HHS-Education would increase when compared to the current fiscal year’s level. Nonetheless, the Senate panel’s top Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said he planned to offer his own set of subcommittee allocations as an amendment Thursday to Shelby’s own 302(b)s.

With progress at least temporarily thwarted, both sides agree that a continuing resolution to extend current funding levels into the new fiscal year will be needed this month to avoid a shutdown. But the details of such a stopgap have yet to be worked out.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, has told colleagues the House would vote next week on a “clean” continuing resolution, meaning it would be stripped of any funding adjustments or policy provisions. But the Trump administration is pushing for a long list of funding changes, known as “anomalies,” that include authorization for border wall construction beyond a portion of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas that is already authorized.

And House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, said Tuesday there is no agreement between the House and Senate on how long a stopgap should last. “We don’t know,” she said. The House has been planning for the measure to extend at least until late November, a Democratic aide said.

Fears of a Washington Christmas

Durbin told reporters he expected the CR ultimately agreed to by both chambers would run through Nov. 22, the last day the Senate is in session before the weeklong Thanksgiving recess. He said even that extension probably wouldn’t buy enough time to get all next year’s spending bills done.

“It’s a heartbreaking Nov. 22 target, which I can tell you from many years of experience is really Dec. 22,” Durbin said.

Senate appropriators have tentatively planned to advance four bills through committee each week for the next three weeks. Thursday’s markup is scheduled to include the Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and State-Foreign Operations bills, but aides said it was possible now that at minimum the Labor-HHS-Education measure won’t be ready in time and could be yanked from the agenda.

The State-Foreign Operations measure could trigger its own partisan fights this year. The measure is another perennial battleground over abortion, with Democrats seeking to block the Trump administration’s reinstated “Mexico City policy,” which bars foreign aid funding to international family planning organizations that offer abortion services. Critics call Trump’s move the “global gag rule,” an international version of this administration’s “domestic gag rule” used to refer to the new Title X policy. 

Hot mic high jinks

Shelby and Durbin, for their part, represent the old school bipartisan Appropriations Committee comity that detests such disputes that hold up federal dollars for their home states and their colleagues’. Illustrating this point, the two were caught on a hot mic after the Defense markup Tuesday morning lamenting the current state of affairs.

Here are snippets of their conversation:

“I don’t want to jeopardize this,” Durbin said. 

“I want to do it. You know it ain’t me,” Shelby replied. 

“I don’t want to be in a spot on Thursday where I’m doing something that breaks my heart,” Durbin said. “If there’s a way that you and I can do something on this, let me know buddy.”

“Listen, I’m going to talk to McConnell and you talk to Schumer, and let’s see if we can get together,” replied Shelby.

Durbin: “Let’s not waste any time.”

Shelby: “I’m with you. Thank you.”

And Durbin with the last word: “Your mic’s on.“ 

Kellie Mejdrich and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Biden, ‘Big Four’ to meet as spending talks sputter

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation