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Senate appropriators warn of year-end train wreck

Leaders call for bipartisan agreement on spending toplines to avoid a series of stopgap bills later

Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, and ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., arrive for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup in Dirksen Building on Wednesday.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, and ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., arrive for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup in Dirksen Building on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senior senators on both sides of the aisle raised warning flags Wednesday about the path ahead for spending bills in the absence of a bipartisan agreement on subcommittee allocations for defense, domestic and foreign aid programs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime appropriator, and other senior Appropriations Committee members called for bipartisan agreement between both chambers and the White House on spending toplines in order to avoid a series stopgap bills or yet another partial government shutdown later this year.

“Members, through no fault of their own, are left in the position of trying to plant individual trees with no overall agreement about the shape of the forest,” McConnell said during the Appropriations panel’s first markup of the year. “That’s not going to fly on the Senate floor, and we know it.”

The committee broke from past precedent this year and opted not to approve a slate of subcommittee spending levels, known as 302(b)s, before it approved the fiscal 2022 Agriculture, Energy-Water and Military Construction-VA bills.

Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said he didn’t want the lack of a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on spending levels to completely stall the panel’s work. But he reiterated calls for congressional leaders to begin serious negotiations with the White House.

“I hope that topline discussions advance during the August break. I know I expect to be on the phone with a lot of people during that time — whenever that August break is,” Leahy said, alluding to the somewhat opaque Senate floor schedule.

The Senate could wrap up its work on a bipartisan infrastructure package as soon as this weekend, the beginning of what is scheduled to be the chamber’s August recess. But lawmakers might also be in next week to consider a budget resolution, with timing still fluid.

When the Senate returns in mid-September, Leahy said, he hopes the committee will “have a clearer path forward for considering the remaining nine bills.”

The chamber is scheduled to be in session in September for a total of 12 days, cutting things close to the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.

Policy riders

In order for that to happen, McConnell and Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said that Democrats would need to agree to equal increases between defense and nondefense spending over the current year and that the status quo needs to remain on policy language throughout the bills.

“We absolutely must agree that longstanding bipartisan legacy policy riders, like Hyde, are staying in, and new poison-pill riders from either side are staying out,” McConnell said, referring to the brewing fight over federal funding for abortion.

House Democrats removed several provisions from their fiscal 2022 spending bills that bar the federal government from spending money on abortion with limited exceptions for rape, incest or the woman’s life. The Hyde amendment, enacted in 1976, affects federal health care benefits and is one of the provisions Democrats removed.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and other top Democrats have said that removing the funding restrictions is a matter of racial equity and that all women, regardless of their income, should have access to abortion services.

House Republicans unilaterally opposed all dozen appropriations bills during committee markups and voted against the nine measures Democratic leaders brought to the House floor for votes last week.

McConnell said the lack of agreement on spending levels was in contrast to recent years under GOP control in the Senate.

“We’ve just come out of a period under a Republican majority when this committee was set up to do its work well,” he said. “We began rebuilding a healthy, bipartisan Senate appropriations process.”

Leahy countered that there was a “little bit of revisionist history” in the Kentucky Republican’s statement. Last year, Republicans didn’t hold any markups following a dispute about whether Democrats should be allowed to offer amendments to add COVID-19 emergency spending to the bills and proposals to address social justice issues.

In 2019, the Senate panel under GOP control began markups in September, and the chamber passed four bills as a combined package on the floor later that month.

Eventually, lawmakers passed a four-bill spending package and an eight-bill measure in December 2019 after using two continuing resolutions to keep the government running while they worked out final agreements on fiscal 2020 bills.

The following year, amid the pandemic, Congress approved a massive year-end spending package that included all dozen spending bills as well as a $902 billion COVID-19 relief package and numerous unrelated measures.

That bill came after Congress used five stopgap spending bills to keep the lights on while appropriators and leadership worked out differences, though the fifth continuing resolution was designed to give time for officials to enact the final measure.

The year before, under Republican majorities in both chambers and a GOP president, lawmakers actually did something unprecedented in recent years: Five of the annual spending bills were done on time, in two bunches.

But President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign a stopgap measure over border wall money after Democrats won back the House in the November 2018 midterms killed the bill. That triggered a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in history, before a seven-bill omnibus finally became law in February 2019.

With the upcoming fiscal year set to begin in less than two months, there likely isn’t time for House and Senate lawmakers to conference all dozen bills, even if there was an agreement on spending levels within the next few weeks. That means the federal government will likely begin the first part of fiscal 2022 on a stopgap measure that continues spending levels and policies agreed to during the Trump administration. 

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