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House, Senate appropriators talking despite impeachment calls

Senate appropriators have begun early talks with House counterparts on next year’s spending bills, despite an impeachment inquiry

Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prepare for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup on June 19, 2019. Senate appropriators have vowed to press on with next year's spending bills as a formal impeachment inquiry begins in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prepare for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup on June 19, 2019. Senate appropriators have vowed to press on with next year's spending bills as a formal impeachment inquiry begins in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Impeachment inquiry? We’ve still got spending bills to pass.

That’s the attitude of top Senate appropriators, who have begun preliminary talks with their House counterparts about a possible path forward for next year’s spending bills, in advance of formal conference negotiations.

[Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry]

“Not on a member level yet, but our top staff are talking to the House members now on some serious stuff,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday, referring to aides to House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y.

The staff-level talks are aimed at hashing out broader differences between the GOP Senate and Democratic House, and not on specific provisions in individual appropriations bills, according to a House Democratic aide.

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Shelby and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said it was still important to try move individual spending bills in the Senate, however. “We have had a lot of talks, but I think until we start having votes that creates a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to have some votes on the floor.”

Shelby added that bicameral talks could occur simultaneously with floor debate. “You can do both. You can be working on the floor and having conference the same day,” he said. “Will we? Now that might be the real question.”

[Whistleblower may testify to House panel, as Trump pledges to release Ukraine call transcript]

While the House has passed 10 of its 12 fiscal 2020 bills already, the chamber was operating under its own budget caps that predated the July deal between the two chambers and the White House. Those figures were $17 billion above the new nondefense cap and $5 billion below for defense spending; in addition, House Democrats loaded up the bills with partisan policy riders opposed by Republicans and the Trump administration.

The Senate meanwhile has been operating under its own partisan funding allocations; though the overall figures comply with the new budget caps negotiated in July, Democrats argue Republicans have prioritized border wall funding over health care and education programs. Democrats also complain they haven’t been able to offer the kind of amendments their House counterparts included, due to a dispute over what constitutes a “poison pill” provision.

As a result, so far four of the 12 Senate spending bills haven’t been able to advance, including the two largest: a $694.9 billion Defense bill and a $187.7 billion Labor-HHS-Education bill. The $55 billion State-Foreign Operations bill also got entangled in a fight over aid to international family planning groups.

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And the panel hasn’t even released its Military Construction-VA bill yet because of the border wall issue: Republicans say it will include $3.6 billion to restore military construction projects the Pentagon plans to defer so the Department of Homeland Security can use it for wall-building. The Senate plans to vote on a resolution to terminate Trump’s emergency powers to tap the base funding on Wednesday. The Homeland Security measure, approved in subcommittee Tuesday, contains the president’s $5 billion wall request, and therefore is likely to see a party-line vote on Thursday in full committee.

Nonetheless, there is a push by top Senate appropriators to put the bills that have achieved bipartisan support on the floor, either in one or multiple packages. Those include the Energy-Water, Agriculture, Financial Services and Transportation-HUD bills, which have already been approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Other bills that could gain bipartisan support at Thursday’s full committee markup are the Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment and Legislative Branch measures.

The Senate is expected to clear a continuing resolution that would provide temporary funding through Nov. 21, to buy time for further negotiations. The deadline for Trump’s signature is 11:59 p.m. Sept. 30.

‘Walk and chew gum’

Hanging over the appropriations process this year, policy and funding differences notwithstanding, is impeachment. House Democrats announced a formal inquiry, as a precursor to possible House votes on articles of impeachment, after concerns about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine boiled over earlier this week, and several moderate Democrats said they’d back such an inquiry.

Shelby said that if the House does begin formal impeachment proceedings, it would likely take priority over other issues and could put the appropriations process on the back burner. “I think it would have an impact on taking the oxygen out of the air to regular order on the floor,” Shelby told reporters Tuesday. “So, I think we’d probably be facing more and more continuing resolutions.”

Trump called an expected impeachment “bad for the country” and said it likely would end any hope for major legislation during the inquiry.

“Then they all wonder why they don’t get gun legislation done, then they wonder why they don’t get drug prices lowered,” Trump told reporters. “Because all they do is talk nonsense. No more infrastructure bills, no more anything.”

Other senators on both sides of the aisle said the House’s actions shouldn’t impact other aspects of the legislative process, including the must-pass spending bills. “We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Leahy said. Other top appropriators from both sides of the aisle, made similar comments, including Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Livingston worked with Clinton to pass spending deals during 1998 impeachment proceedings. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Then-House Appropriations Chairman Robert L. Livingston worked with then-President Bill Clinton to pass spending deals during 1998 impeachment proceedings. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There is precedent for taking care of normal legislative matters at the same time as something extraordinary like impeachment proceedings. In 1998 in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky affair, the report of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was released in early September, before then-President Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony later in the month. The House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend a formal impeachment inquiry, followed by House floor action, in early October. The proceedings dragged on through the 1998 midterms, culminating in the House voting in favor of two out of four articles of impeachment on Dec. 19, 1998.

During this period, all of the fiscal 1999 spending bills became law, with Clinton signing the last batch on Oct. 21. Of course, the House had already acted on all but one of its versions by mid-September, and the Senate had approved all but three by that point.

That was before then-House Appropriations Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., was picked to succeed then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., after the midterms, when the GOP lost five House seats.

Just hours before the House voted to impeach Clinton, Livingston admitted his own affairs and announced he would give up the speakership and resign from Congress. He left in March 1999.

Paul M. Krawzak and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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