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Four spending bills on the move; Democrats eye allocations deal

Leaders scramble to make headway on appropriations for fiscal year before stopgap measure runs dry

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. (right), arrive for the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. (right), arrive for the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic leaders Tuesday called for bicameral talks to reconcile competing spending allocations for long-delayed fiscal 2020 appropriations bills.

With barely five weeks left before the current stopgap funding measure runs dry, congressional leaders are scrambling to make headway on appropriations for the fiscal year that began on Oct.1. Lawmakers have already acknowledged that another stopgap could be needed to fund at least part of the government and avoid a shutdown before Thanksgiving.

[Four appropriations bills slated for Senate floor this week]

In a modest step toward progress, the Senate voted 92-2 to take up four of its 12 annual bills as a substitute for a House-passed package. The package contains the Senate’s Agriculture, Transportation-HUD, Interior-Environment and Commerce-Justice-Science measures.

But getting to a final compromise requires agreement on spending allocations, known as 302(b)s, for the 12 annual bills. And so far, the House and Senate have been working from different spreadsheets.

“It is important to know what each [sub]committee is going to receive,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. “It is particularly important to know from our standpoint what the [Labor-HHS-Education] bill is going to receive, because we believe that’s really the people’s bill.”

Added Hoyer, a longtime Appropriations Committee member: “It’s important for us to know the allocation because once you pass one bill, that money is gone.”

But informal talks in recent weeks have been slow going. “I’m very concerned about the appropriations process,” he told reporters. While compromise spending allocations are sorely needed, he said, the willingness to compromise “does not appear to be present at this point.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said bicameral talks may be needed to get a deal locked down.

“House leaders have suggested that a conference, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, on these 302(b)s,” the New York Democrat said on the Senate floor. “That’s a good idea. If Republicans are willing to engage with us on the 302(b)s, we get negotiations back on track to fund the government.”

And House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., likewise acknowledged that little progress has been made. “We’re passing notes back and forth,” she said of the state of negotiations. “So hopefully it will be resolved one day soon.”

Lowey spokesman Evan Hollander later said House Democrats support resolving the conference allocations “through negotiations between the House and Senate Appropriations chairs. After allocations are set, bipartisan bicameral negotiators can begin conferencing individual bills.”

Democrats are unhappy with the spending allocations proposed by the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee, which they say would underfund the Labor-HHS-Education bill to funnel more money to a wall along the U.S. southern border. Hollander said to get a deal on allocations, “Senate Republicans will have to drop their demand to fund a border wall by shortchanging domestic priorities.”

But the bills crafted by House Democrats, which are more generous to domestic programs, would bust the cap on nondefense spending that was imposed under a bipartisan budget deal last summer. Combined with a separate Senate spending cap in the fiscal 2018 budget resolution, the bills approved either on the House floor or by the House Appropriations Committee are nearly $20 billion over the nondefense limit for this fiscal year.

The biggest difference between the House and Senate is on the Labor-HHS-Education bill, which accounts for $14 billion of the nondefense gap. The Senate version would provide a less than 1 percent boost over fiscal 2019, while House Democrats’ bill proposes a more than 8 percent increase.

First things first

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, focused on getting their own spending bills passed. While the House has passed 10 of its 12 bills, the Senate has passed none of its own so far.

“We are not totally focused on [conference allocations] yet, but sooner or later we’re going to have to be,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday. “If we’re successful in passing these bills and getting toward a conference that would be the prime time to start talking.”

The Senate vote Tuesday allowed debate to proceed on four spending bills, all of which won unanimous approval by the Appropriations Committee last month. Together, they would amount to $214.4 billion in discretionary spending, after accounting for savings from mandatory programs and adjustments for the 2020 census and wildfire suppression.

“Soon we’ll be voting on appropriations, and we’ll see whether our Democratic friends really can put aside their impeachment obsession long enough to get some real work done on the side,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor.

Schumer suggested Democrats were willing to support the package because it had broad bipartisan support: “Democrats want to move forward on the noncontroversial appropriations bills, the bills that have had bipartisan agreement.” In fact all Democrats in the chamber voted to proceed to the four-bill package; only GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee voted “no.”

But he warned again that McConnell’s plan to follow up that package with a measure that includes Pentagon funding would face opposition. Democrats have opposed taking up the Senate’s Defense bill because of President Donald Trump’s plan to divert military funding to a border wall. Schumer said the allocations for the Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Military Construction-VA, and Homeland Security bill still require a bipartisan compromise.

McConnell said Tuesday that if the chamber votes to proceed to the second package, the Senate would substitute the text of committee-reported Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bills for the House-passed package, which contained those two plus the Energy-Water and State-Foreign Operations measures.

Jennifer Shutt and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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