Omnibus talks appear on track; House vote expected Wednesday

GOP pushing to offset White House pandemic response request with unspent state and local relief funds

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says fiscal 2022 omnibus negotiators are "very close" to agreement. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says fiscal 2022 omnibus negotiators are "very close" to agreement. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 7, 2022 at 5:25pm, Updated at 7:56pm

Top appropriators and congressional leaders are aiming to wrap up omnibus negotiations in time to file the massive spending package in the House as soon as Tuesday, vote on it in that chamber Wednesday and get it through the Senate before Friday at midnight when stopgap funding expires.

While so-called open items remained, there was confidence on both sides of the aisle that talks were going well enough on the massive, long-overdue package that a fourth continuing resolution for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 wouldn't be necessary. 

“It’s going to be very soon,” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said late Monday. “The staff will be negotiating all night long, as they have been. So, you know, we’re getting there.”

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., characterized the state of play Monday evening by holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “We’re getting close,” he said, without elaborating.

In a sign that the 12 annual appropriations bills that comprise the bulk of the omnibus are largely finalized, subcommittee "readouts" were underway Monday, with some having been completed over the weekend, sources said. This is a process appropriators use to ensure bill language they've been negotiating reflects what's been agreed to.

"I believe both sides are close, very close, to arriving at an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Monday afternoon.

COVID-19 aid remained one of the items still being negotiated Monday.

The White House last week requested $22.5 billion in emergency funds to fulfill “immediate needs” in the federal government’s pandemic response effort, including $18.25 billion for the Health and Human Services Department to continue procuring therapeutics, testing supplies and vaccines, and $4.25 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute vaccines and other supplies to vulnerable populations around the globe.

Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations ranking member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the White House revised down its total request for pandemic aid late last week to $15 billion, with $10 billion for HHS and the remainder for international assistance. Blunt said the total appropriators include may go a little higher, however. An administration official disputed Blunt's characterization, saying their request remains at $22.5 billion.

Republicans want to fully offset whatever COVID-19 spending is agreed to, and have suggested repurposing previously appropriated pandemic relief funds that remain unallocated, sources said. One GOP aide pointed to $100 billion in state and local pandemic funds that the Treasury Department has not sent out as an option.

“It’s going to be paid for,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said, adding that “a lot” will come from unspent state and local aid dollars though he cautioned the talks were fluid.

A separate package negotiated by a bipartisan Senate group to backfill the depleted Restaurant Revitalization Fund with up to $48 billion to provide grants to restaurants that qualified last year but didn’t get any money before funds ran out is unlikely to make it into the omnibus, sources said. That package had also been expected to include funds for other small businesses that did not qualify for previous rounds of aid, like gyms and hotels. 

One of the lead restaurant relief package negotiators, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said late Monday he still hoped to secure some funds in the omnibus.

Ukraine aid, Russia trade

There appears to be agreement to include $12 billion in supplemental funds for military, humanitarian and economic aid to Ukraine and NATO allies as Russia continues its attacks. Schumer cited that figure in his Monday floor speech, which is up from $10 billion the White House initially requested.

“The Congress intends to enact this emergency funding this week as part of our omnibus government funding legislation,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday night. 

The bipartisan leadership of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees agreed to a package of Russia trade sanctions Monday that would, among other things, ban Russian oil imports and suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, which would raise tariffs on goods from those nations. A spokesperson for Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, the trade bill's lead sponsor, said it would be a stand-alone bill and not part of the omnibus.

It wasn't immediately clear what the fate of several tax-related provisions would be in the omnibus talks.

Corporations and some lawmakers are pressing to restore immediate, full expensing of research and development costs in the omnibus, but it wasn’t looking likely that change would make it in.

Also facing an uphill climb despite bipartisan support was a restoration for the final quarter of 2021 of the employee retention tax credit, which provided pandemic relief largely to small businesses and nonprofits.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wouldn’t comment on whether tax provisions were being added, deferring to appropriators. Thune, a Finance member, said “last I checked” tax provisions weren’t going to be part of the package.

House Ways and Means members have been pushing to add a bipartisan package of retirement savings provisions. One of the complications is that adding a tax title to the package would open it to calls for other tax provisions to be added in. 

To try to boost the Ways and Means retirement effort, leaders of the Insured Retirement Institute, a trade group for asset managers, life insurers, banks and others with a stake in retirement policy, are set to meet virtually with lawmakers on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wyden appeared to throw cold water on the retirement savings push Monday, however, saying it needs to be vetted more extensively by his committee.

“In the last 24 hours, I can tell you, I haven't personally been heavily involved in the retirement discussion," Wyden said.

He suggested hearings were in the works, but that legislation wasn’t yet ready to move. “Obviously our members in the Finance Committee in the Senate want to be able to weigh in,” Wyden said.

Tight timeline

The current plan, subject to change, is for appropriators to have the final omnibus text ready to file Tuesday for the House Rules Committee to consider that day. The House would then vote on the package Wednesday morning before lawmakers in that chamber adjourn for the week. Democrats are headed to Philadelphia midday Wednesday for their annual issues conference, which runs through Friday. 

The House has discussed using a procedure called “dividing the question” to hold separate votes on the defense and nondefense portions of the omnibus, but a final decision hadn't been made on whether to deploy that strategy.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the House has used the procedure on spending bills in the past and is considering it again "because it facilitates obviously people voting for what they want to vote for and voting against what they want to vote for."

Such a move would appeal to Republicans who support the defense budget but oppose most nondefense spending levels and progressive Democrats who feel the opposite. 

If the House were to divide the omnibus into two or more votes, they would put language in the rule specifying that the pieces be merged into one package before the measure is enrolled and sent to the Senate. 

The House is also expected to use a Senate-passed bill as a vehicle for the omnibus so it can be sent over as a message from the House, which allows the Senate to skip cloture on the motion to proceed. 

But unless senators reach a time agreement, Schumer would have to file cloture on the underlying bill. He’d likely do that sometime Wednesday, which would set up a cloture vote Friday, followed by up to 30 hours of debate absent unanimous consent to hold the votes sooner. 

As is often the case on spending bills, reaching a time agreement would likely involve allowing Republicans a vote on some amendments. For example, 10 Senate Republicans, led by Utah's Mike Lee, released a "Dear Colleague" letter Friday saying they won't consent to a time agreement unless they get a roll call vote on an amendment that would defund the enforcement of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Thune predicted the bill would be headed to President Joe Biden’s desk by week’s end, but couldn’t put too fine a timeline on it.

“It's just a question of whether or not there can be some amendment votes accommodated, but you know, it should wrap up,” Thune said. “On a Monday, it's still a little elusive to figure out exactly when it wraps.”

Ellyn Ferguson and David Lerman contributed to this report.