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Senate floor debate beckons amid spending bill impasse

Under stopgap law, lawmakers have about five weeks to reach funding agreement

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby says there’s a “good chance” the chamber can start debating spending bills next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby says there’s a “good chance” the chamber can start debating spending bills next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate next week could debate a package of spending bills that have received bipartisan support in the Appropriations Committee, according to Chairman Richard C. Shelby.

“I’ve been hearing that and conversations lend me to think there’s a good chance,” the Alabama Republican said Wednesday, noting that the final decision is up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I think there are five, six, seven appropriations bills that we could pass if we get to the floor.”

Shelby said talks between House and Senate appropriators about reaching a deal on bicameral subcommittee allocations are ongoing, but noted that some of his attention has shifted to the possibility of Senate floor debate next week.

“We’re continuing to talk, but right now we’re trying to focus on what’s going on here,” he said.

Senate floor action might not move the two chambers much closer to final passage of fiscal 2020 spending bills, however. The stopgap funding law gives negotiators about five more weeks, until Nov. 21, to reach agreement. And for one of those weeks, in early November, the House is scheduled to be in recess.

Earlier Wednesday, Senate leaders traded blame for a deepening partisan impasse over delayed appropriations bills for the current fiscal year.

A two-week October recess came and went without any sign of progress on reconciling competing House and Senate spending allocations for all 12 bills. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said chamber Republicans failed to respond to Democratic compromise proposals.

“Instead of spending that time negotiating with House Democrats on allocations, Senate Republicans have sat on their hands,” Schumer said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “And now we’re back in session this week at the same impasse,” he added, faulting Republicans for seeking “$12 billion for a border wall that President [Donald] Trump promised Mexico would pay for.”

McConnell sought to pin the blame on House Democrats, saying they were “dragging their heels on funding the government, keeping our military commanders in limbo.” Just a day earlier, the Kentucky Republican accused Senate Democrats of backtracking on a bipartisan budget deal that prohibits “poison pill” policy riders on spending bills, with limited exceptions.

The comments from both parties suggested a deepening rift that would further complicate work on a final spending package for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 

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Border blues

The biggest source of conflict remains funding for a wall along the U.S. southern border, an impasse that already led to the longest partial government shutdown in history, beginning late last year. The Senate’s Homeland Security bill would provide $5 billion for a wall, while the House version would provide nothing.

Democrats say the Republican-crafted Senate spending allocations would shortchange the Labor-HHS-Education bill to help pay for a border wall. While the Labor-HHS-Education measure would get an increase of less than 1 percent over the current fiscal year’s level, the Homeland Security bill would get a nearly 8 percent boost.

While the two sides traded subcommittee funding offers over the recess, a GOP aide said, “Frankly, offers from either side are just playing around the margins until the four [congressional] leaders and the president settle the central issue.”

Meanwhile, Senate appropriators plan to unveil a Military Construction-VA bill that includes $3.6 billion to “backfill” money taken from already approved military construction projects that is getting diverted to a border wall under Trump’s emergency declaration. The bill will be released this week or next week, said Arkansas GOP Sen. John Boozman, who chairs the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee.

Democrats have vowed to oppose any effort to backfill the construction projects, which they said would amount to tacit approval of the funding diversion plan. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that the Senate should resolve the border wall impasse by holding an up-or-down vote on wall funding.

“Donald Trump gave his solemn word, over and over, that Mexico was going to pay for it,” Leahy said. “As soon as the check arrives, let’s build.”

On Tuesday, Trump vetoed — for the second time this year — a resolution to terminate the national emergency he declared back in February, enabling him to tap the military construction funds for the wall project.

The top Democrat on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Patty Murray of Washington, tweeted Wednesday that she’s planning to introduce legislation “to prevent President Trump — and all future presidents — from ransacking funds for critical military projects for their own vanity projects.”

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