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Senate spending bills face delay over amendment fight

Republicans say appropriations bills are no place to debate further coronavirus aid or police overhaul measures

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk as they arrive in the Capitol via the Senate subway on Feb. 12, 2020.
Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk as they arrive in the Capitol via the Senate subway on Feb. 12, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate appropriators have hit an impasse over a Democratic push to add spending to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and policy changes affecting police departments in next year’s spending bills, threatening to further push back the already delayed fiscal 2021 markup process.

The committee was expected to begin marking up the dozen spending bills next week, but as of Wednesday that prospect seemed unlikely.

“Funding the government is a serious responsibility, and I will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said in a statement.

Shelby, R-Ala., and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., have been negotiating for weeks over how to divide $1.4 trillion among the dozen annual funding bills. At the same time, subcommittee panel leaders have been in talks over avoiding contentious policy riders so that bills could advance to the Senate floor with bipartisan support.

The full committee was preparing to mark up as many as three of the 12 bills next week, with four more on tap the following week before the chamber recesses for two weeks. Those markups won’t happen unless Democrats drop their request to debate spending bill amendments pertaining to pandemic aid and “social justice reforms,” according to a Senate GOP aide not authorized to speak publicly.

In his own statement Wednesday, Leahy said Democrats are “committed to producing bipartisan bills” but didn’t appear ready to give any ground on the pandemic and policing issues.

“There is bipartisan agreement that we need to address the COVID pandemic. And if we want to truly address the issues of racial injustice that George Floyd’s tragic death has brought to the surface, we need more than symbolism, we need to appropriate money for programs that advance these issues,” Leahy said. “Offering and considering amendments related to appropriations to address the most important issues of the day is not partisan, it is the job the Committee is here to do.”

But Republicans want Democrats to agree to abide by a handshake deal that Shelby and Leahy struck at the beginning of the fiscal 2019 process two years ago that would avoid issues that are typically handled by authorizing committees and amendments that would “undermine broad bipartisan support on the Senate floor,” according to the GOP aide.

That agreement allowed the Senate Appropriations Committee to report all 12 of its bills on broad bipartisan votes, although that comity broke down last year.

Republicans had to advance the fiscal 2020 Homeland Security and Defense bills mostly along party lines. The panel also wasn’t able to mark up the Labor-HHS-Education bill and didn’t release the Military Construction-VA bill because of various disagreements over content and what amendments could be offered.

The Republican aide said if Congress is going to approve additional spending for the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be done in line with the previous four aid packages, which were all emergency supplemental spending measures.

The aide said there isn’t enough support among Senate Republicans to attach additional coronavirus funding to individual fiscal 2021 spending bills.

Police overhaul

GOP appropriators are also opposed to opening up the spending bills to debate over a policing overhaul they say is best left to the appropriate authorizing committees and stand-alone legislation such as the bill Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and other Republicans introduced Wednesday morning.

[Senate Republicans unveil policing overhaul alternative]

That package would change the way police departments report use-of-force incidents and would provide incentives for chokehold bans, among other provisions. Democrats say the GOP bill doesn’t go far enough to address systemic racism in law enforcement. One way to try to advance their priorities is to try to attach riders to the must-pass spending bills.

“When my Democratic colleagues decide to return to the Shelby-Leahy framework that produced so much broad bipartisan success in the past, the committee will move forward expeditiously in considering appropriations bills,” Shelby said.     

If Senate appropriators don’t mark up any of their fiscal 2021 spending bills, it would be a first since at least 1985. It would introduce significant uncertainty into the process, including casting doubts on what, if anything, senators would be able to bring into House-Senate conference negotiations.

The House Appropriations Committee is on track to begin its markups the week of July 6. That panel is unlikely to run into similar issues because Democrats can process spending bills in committee and on the floor without Republican support.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., has said he wants to pass all 12 bills before leaving town for the August recess, which would give that chamber a substantial head start over the Senate, particularly if that chamber’s committee process stalls out.

It was already unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell planned to bring any of the bills to the floor amid a tight timetable this summer and early fall, even if the Appropriations panel is able to act.

Most observers have already concluded at least one stopgap funding bill will be needed to get past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and through the November elections. And it’s typical for spending bills to be carried over into the following calendar year, particularly if there’s a change in control of the White House or one or both chambers of Congress.

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