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Senate GOP lays out priorities in fiscal 2021 spending showdown

Bills set starting point for negotiations ahead of Dec. 11 deadline

The Senate Appropriations Committee released its dozen spending bills on Tuesday after a monthslong stalemate sidelined the process.

The bills reflect significant differences between Senate Republicans and House Democrats on spending levels as well as policy riders that address everything from family planning grants to military installations named for Confederate officers and border wall funding.

Working within the same topline defense and nondefense caps under a 2019 agreement, Senate Republicans made some strategic reductions from bills introduced by their House Democratic counterparts to fund the departments of Veterans Affairs, Interior, EPA, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Instead, they’d put that money towards higher levels for Defense, Homeland Security, Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers than the House would prefer.

Senate Republicans appear to give the biggest domestic spending bill, for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, more money than the House version. But that’s before the addition of $24.4 billion in pandemic-related emergency spending House Democrats tacked on, part of a nearly $250 billion overall pot of add-ons sprinkled throughout the bills Republicans say violate last year’s budget deal.

The committees, congressional leaders and the Trump administration have less than five weeks to resolve their differences, draft a final 12-bill omnibus package and hold floor votes before government funding expires on Dec. 11.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., commended Chairman Richard C. Shelby’s decision to release the spending bills so the House and Senate could begin conference negotiations, though he did detail some grievances.

“Many of the bills were the result of bipartisan work, and I appreciate those areas where we were able to come to agreement. However, there are significant issues that we will want to address in negotiations with the House,” Leahy said in a statement.

At the top of the list is additional aid for the coronavirus pandemic, an issue congressional leaders and the Trump administration have been stalled on for months. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have both said they want to wrap up a separate relief bill during the lame duck session, but remain in very different places on total spending.

McConnell has said improvements in the economy indicate Congress should pass a more “targeted” relief bill while Pelosi has said the increase in cases and deaths show the health care sector, economy, schools and state and local governments need significant resources to address the crisis during the coming months.

Leahy said in his statement that additional pandemic relief must be a priority, though he added additional funding could be provided in stand-alone legislation or as emergency titles added onto the regular appropriations bills.

Myriad differences

Senate Democrats’ other issues with the bills released Tuesday include too little funding for the Labor-HHS-Education bill, lower funding levels for family planning in the State-Foreign Operations bill; “inadequate funding” for climate change in the Interior-Environment bill; $2 billion for ongoing construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and an “unwarranted” amount of funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.

“Because the bill fails to accurately reflect ICE’s detained population, which has decreased amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency is essentially provided a slush fund for this administration’s extreme enforcement and removal activities,” Leahy wrote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was on track to release the bills in June but Shelby, R-Ala., decided to shelve the markup process after Democrats insisted they would offer amendments on COVID-19 relief and social justice issues. According to a review of the CQ Almanac, which has records going back to 1945, this year would be the first time Senate appropriators didn’t mark up a single annual spending bill.

The House panel continued its process in the meantime, approving all dozen funding bills during July and passing 10 across the House floor. Democrats held back the Legislative Branch spending bill and the Homeland Security spending bill over concerns there wouldn’t be enough votes to approve them.

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The Homeland Security bill was scheduled to go to the floor in a package with five other bills but was pulled at the last minute after progressive and moderate Democrats expressed different concerns with the bill.

The Legislative Branch spending bill was never scheduled to come to the floor.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., a longtime appropriator who prides himself on moving spending bills across the House floor, chided his Senate colleagues for the delay.

“This is the same Senate that failed to mark up even a single appropriation bill before the end of the previous fiscal year, the first time in at least seventy-five years that has occurred,” he said in a statement. Hoyer nonetheless urged bicameral cooperation in order “to avert another damaging government shutdown by the December 11 deadline.”

White House wild card

Whether President Donald Trump’s lame-duck administration will engage in those negotiations, or whether he’ll want to sign any spending bills, period, remains unknown. Trump is still refusing to accept the election results and the fact that President-elect Joe Biden is on track to be sworn in on Jan. 20.

If the House and Senate reach agreement on a 12-bill omnibus and send it to Trump, he’ll have 10 days excluding Sundays to sign or veto the bill. If he doesn’t act on it during that timeframe, it would become law without a signature as long as Congress is in session.

If Trump vetoes a spending package, the House and Senate could override him with two-thirds of the lawmakers present and voting. That may be a particularly challenging vote for Republicans considering that Trump may seek reelection again in 2024, and that even if he doesn’t seek office again he has a large Twitter following on which he could disparage GOP lawmakers voting against his wishes.

If negotiators can’t reach agreement on full-fledged spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 they will likely vote on another continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels into 2021. Or they could approve a hybrid package with the bills they’ve agreed to and then a continuing resolution for any departments that won’t receive a full-year spending bill.