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Senate appropriations process continues to devolve

Labor-HHS-Education and State-Foreign Operations spending bills mired in abortion dispute

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has seen the Senate’s appropriations process begin to fray this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has seen the Senate’s appropriations process begin to fray this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate appropriators have abandoned plans to mark up two spending bills Thursday that have become mired in a partisan dispute over abortion policy.

The Appropriations Committee announced it will postpone consideration of its fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education bill and its State-Foreign Operations bill. As of Wednesday evening, the panel still planned to take up its Defense and Energy-Water bills at a full committee markup, along with a measure that would divvy up total discretionary spending among the 12 subcommittees.

The decision to scale back the committee’s Thursday agenda marked the latest blow to a delayed appropriations process as lawmakers scramble to avoid a government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. None of the 12 annual spending bills have reached the Senate floor and a stopgap funding measure is being prepared to keep the government operating.

[Senate appropriators to begin spending sprint next week to avoid shutdown]

Tensions over the Labor-HHS-Education bill had already led the committee’s Republican majority to scrap plans for a subcommittee markup on the measure Tuesday. Democrats made clear they were preparing to offer an amendment at the full committee markup on Thursday that would block the Trump administration from enforcing a rule preventing federal grant money from going to organizations that provide abortions or offer abortion referrals.

Appropriators had been hoping to avoid such policy disputes this year because of a side agreement reached as part of a new two-year budget deal enacted last month that prohibits “poison pill” policy riders in spending bills 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.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Democrats were backtracking on that deal and jeopardizing passage of needed spending bills as a result.

“We have no time to waste when it comes to appropriations,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Everyone on both sides agreed there would be no poison pills, no partisan wrenches thrown into the gears.”

The State-Foreign Operations bill was likely to trigger its own partisan fight Thursday. 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 abortions or related counseling and referrals. 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 family planning program.

And there has been no sign of any bipartisan agreement on how to divvy up total discretionary spending among the 12 subcommittees to create the so-called 302(b) allocations. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to cut $5 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services to meet Trump’s request for border wall funding.

“The spirit of bipartisanship necessary for this work might be — might be — melting away,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Wednesday. Schumer has said Republicans are seeking as much as $12 billion for a border wall, including money to replenish funding for military construction projects that the administration is diverting toward the border.

“We are not going to vote for a budget that is partisan, attempted to be jammed down our throat, that puts an additional $12 billion for the wall,” he said.

That same border wall dispute is also threatening prospects for the Defense spending bill. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Defense subcommittee’s top Democrat, said Tuesday he didn’t yet know if Democrats would support the measure at Thursday’s markup because of the administration’s plan to divert military construction funding for a wall.

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