Partisan skirmishes threaten swift omnibus timetable

Key appropriators worried about meeting the March 11 deadline

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference after the party luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 1. He raised concerns about how the administration wants to count Ukraine aid in the context of appropriations negotiations.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference after the party luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 1. He raised concerns about how the administration wants to count Ukraine aid in the context of appropriations negotiations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 1, 2022 at 5:56pm

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer wants his chamber to take up the fiscal 2022 omnibus package appropriators are currently negotiating as soon as March 8, but top appropriators said Tuesday they’re worried about meeting the March 11 deadline.

Confusion about how to count funding for Ukraine and a GOP push to move that aid separately from the omnibus added complications to appropriators’ effort to finalize the 12 annual spending bills. Normal disputes around Homeland Security funding and other provisions are also keeping talks from moving as fast as appropriators would like. 

The latest stopgap funding law expires March 11. Hoyer said he’s asked House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to finalize negotiations so the omnibus would be ready to bring to the floor as early as March 8.

“I’ve urged us to get that done at the beginning of next week so the Senate can conclude it prior to the 11th,” the Maryland Democrat said.

That’s just a week away and Hoyer said appropriators, despite having agreed to topline funding levels, are still working out details of how much to give each department and program.

“We've made a lot of progress, but we're not sealed,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said. He said he and Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., both met with their top staffers for a status update on Monday.

Asked whether appropriators could meet the March 11 deadline, Shelby said, “Could. Will we? I don't know. I hope so.”

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chair Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., also said he’s “worried” about meeting the March 11 deadline, noting he’s not seen “the seriousness of engagement” needed from Republicans to finalize his panel’s bill.

Shelby and Hoyer both said no decisions have been made yet about whether supplemental funding for Ukraine, COVID-19 or natural disasters would be added to the omnibus or considered separately.

“It could go either way and I think will depend upon if we could get a consensus, or at least a majority support for those supplementals that the president is asking for,” Hoyer said. 

Ukraine aid dispute 

The Biden administration is requesting an additional $6.4 billion in military and humanitarian relief for Ukraine as the country tries to fight off a Russian invasion aimed at toppling its government. The request includes $3.5 billion to help the Pentagon respond to the crisis and $2.9 billion in security assistance for NATO allies, as well as humanitarian and food aid, according to an administration official who declined to be identified in confirming the request.

Republicans raised alarms Tuesday as they accused the White House of requesting the humanitarian and foreign assistance in nondefense accounts be counted as emergency spending but the additional money they want the Pentagon to spend in response to the Ukraine crisis to come out of the defense topline agreed to for fiscal 2022, which is expected to top $780 billion. 

“We're not going to do that,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. “This is an emergency. It's eligible for a supplemental and defense ought to be treated just like nondefense in the supplemental.”

Democrats said they didn’t know what Republicans were talking about and said all of the new aid to Ukraine would be considered emergency spending. 

“Absolutely not true. And it was never true. This would be additional money,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of the Democratic leadership, noting Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer both made that clear. 

One thing lawmakers in both parties agreed on is that they want to spend more than the $6.4 billion the administration requested in response to the Ukraine crisis. 

Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Coons, D-Del., said last week that Congress ultimately may provide at least $10 billion to shore up Ukraine and European allies. On Tuesday he said he’s still pushing for the higher amount and wouldn’t rule out needing additional emergency funds before the fiscal year concludes. 

“Part of why I'm pressing for a larger number is because we can already see — this war isn’t even a week old, and we've seen 600,000 people flee. The siege of Kyiv is just starting,” Coons said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Coons’ GOP counterpart, said he thinks the amount should fall somewhere between $6.4 billion and $10 billion. He and some other Republicans said Tuesday they want to vote on Ukraine aid this week, instead of waiting for the omnibus. 

But Schumer said that’s not going to happen. “The omnibus is the quickest and most efficient way to get this done,” he told reporters. 

Pandemic relief

Lawmakers are also considering whether to include new emergency funding for pandemic needs in the omnibus, including funds for the federal government response as well as relief for struggling restaurants and other small businesses. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is asking for $30 billion for "near term" COVID-19 response needs.

Nearly $18 billion of that would go toward oral antivirals, monoclonal antibody treatments, pediatric vaccines and new vaccines designed to fight off multiple COVID-19 variants. Another $5 billion would be for testing supplies and manufacturing. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development has requested additional funding for global vaccine distribution.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., ranking member of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he thinks it’s "increasingly unlikely” that a COVID-19 supplemental would be attached to the omnibus given the focus on Ukraine aid and limited time before the deadline.

Republicans also still want questions answered about future health needs as the virus evolves and hospitalizations decline before they agree to any new emergency funding, he said. "What happened to the 500 million tests the president was going to buy, and do you still need 500 million tests?" Blunt asked.

A bipartisan group of senators, meanwhile, is continuing to push for including a new round of pandemic-related restaurant relief in the omnibus package.

Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., has said he is trying to provide as much as $48 billion to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund that was created as part of a pandemic aid law last March.

"We certainly have requested it to be included," Cardin said Tuesday. "We'll see what happens."

His chief Republican co-sponsor, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, declined to say how much new money would be provided. But he described the request as "a matter of fairness to the restaurants. We simply ran out of money for people who were fully qualified."

‘With or without supplements’

No specific requests have been made for disaster aid, but lawmakers have said some funds could be included for areas like western Kentucky that were hit hard by tornados last year. And the Louisiana delegation is pushing for nearly $2 billion in additional relief from Hurricane Ida last fall as well as Laura and Delta which hit a year earlier.

Hoyer said he hopes that debate over supplemental aid won’t slow consideration of the omnibus, which is already five months overdue from the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2022.

“I'm hopeful that that will be done and we can pass a bill, with or without supplements,” he said. “But if there are supplements, that we could pass those as well to stabilize both our economy to make life better for our people and to engage in building security and stability in the global community.”

Leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee said Tuesday they were making progress on a final funding agreement, but that divisions remained over perennial sticking points like border wall funding and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention beds. 

"I have not been impressed by the seriousness of Republicans' offers on the homeland security bill," Murphy said. "We obviously have to find a middle ground, but there's no way around having to pay for all the expenses that DHS has incurred over the last year."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., his Republican counterpart, said talks were going "fine" and said they had agreed on a topline number.

"We've made some progress, but we're far from having it wrapped up," she said. 

Blunt, meanwhile, said talks on the Labor-HHS-Education bill, which contains the largest chunk of the nondefense accounts, were going well.

He said the longstanding Hyde amendment barring federal funds for abortion services in most instances would remain in the final package, a key demand of Republicans. Blunt said overall the bill would see increases over the prior year, though not as much as Democrats proposed.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said her bill is almost done.

David Lerman, Caroline Simon, Laura Weiss and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.