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Bicameral appropriations talks stalled as House charges ahead

GOP support for Democrats' spending plans, needed to advance bills in the evenly divided Senate, is lacking

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., left, and ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., left, and ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Negotiations on a spending ceiling to govern the fiscal 2023 appropriations process have ground to a halt due to differences over defense spending and a Republican push to strip the bills of earmarks, according to top Senate appropriators.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., charged this week that Republicans are pushing for a continuing resolution instead of pursuing a fiscal 2023 spending deal. Republicans want large defense spending increases while flat-funding nondefense agencies, Leahy said.

Top Senate Republican appropriator Richard C. Shelby confirmed that the negotiations had stalled, even as their House counterparts move forward with markups starting this week under a spending structure that largely adheres to President Joe Biden’s budget request.

The heart of the dispute is a disagreement on the level of defense spending, with Republicans pushing for a significant increase above inflation. Leahy said Republicans want nondefense spending to stay at the level it was in the fiscal 2022 omnibus law — a nonstarter for Democrats. 

“The Republicans have said, according to Sen. Shelby, they don’t want appropriations bills, they only want continuing resolutions,” Leahy said. “We’ll write up [bills], based on my topline, but they only want continuing resolutions.”   

In his fiscal year 2023 budget request, Biden asked for $813 billion in defense-related spending, a 4 percent increase over the fiscal 2022 level that Republicans argue wouldn’t keep pace with inflation, which is currently running at an annual rate of 8.6 percent. White House budget documents assume that figure will drop to 2.3 percent next year, though inflation would have to drop significantly later this year and next for that to happen.

House Democrats set an overall $1.6 trillion discretionary spending cap largely in line with Biden’s budget request earlier this month, which is 9 percent above the current year.

The initial fiscal 2023 spending bills for Defense and Military Construction-VA that House Democrats unveiled Tuesday would exceed Biden’s proposed $773 billion Pentagon budget by roughly $3 billion, mainly for military construction and family housing accounts.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the Appropriations panel’s ranking member, said Wednesday the defense funding proposal remains “far short” of what’s needed and that the Democrat-drafted bills have a long way to go before receiving GOP support.

Biden’s budget request assumes a roughly 14 percent increase for domestic and foreign aid programs including veterans health care, which Democrats are proposing to wall off in the negotiations from the rest of the nondefense agencies. 

Senate spending bills haven’t been unveiled yet.

‘Not going to happen’

Leahy said he is pushing for increases in defense and nondefense spending, and to retain earmarks. But he said Republicans have communicated to him that they don’t want to negotiate until after the midterm elections. 

Shelby said passing the bills by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, is “not going to happen.” He said Republicans want an increase in defense spending that is a healthy rise above the current high rate of inflation. 

“Until the Democrats think seriously about that, it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “It’s stalled, this is nothing new. It stalled last year until we finally put it together.” 

Some Republicans want to wait and see how the election turns out before moving forward with the appropriations process, Shelby said. Republicans are widely expected to take control of the House and could also gain control of the Senate. 

The House started marking up the 12 annual appropriations bills Wednesday and is set to continue through the end of this month in preparation for July floor votes. However, with no topline bipartisan agreement, the final appropriations figures will be very different from the figures the House will set.  

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said staff-level meetings and conversations between Democrats and Republicans on the topline figures are ongoing.

“We’ll see how that comes out, but I’m moving tomorrow,” she said Tuesday. “All I can say is we have every reason to move forward, things are in order, we can go.” 

Continuing resolutions harm everyone, DeLauro said, especially the military. 

“If you go with a continuing resolution, defense will get cut. [Republicans] are very, very big about talking about defense,” she said. “Everything gets cut, everybody gets hurt. So a continuing resolution is the worst thing. But I am moving forward, and we’ll see where the chips fall.” 

Last year, Democrats brought back earmarks with revamped transparency rules and a cap at 1 percent of discretionary spending. 

While Leahy said Republicans are pushing to get rid of earmarks, Shelby said the issue is not having an effect on the negotiations.  

“The earmarks are ancillary to all of that, are incidental, are only a small part of the whole budget,” Shelby said. “They’ve never been in the forefront, and should never be.” 

The earmarks issue is an ongoing discussion in the party, with some Republicans in favor of earmarks and others opposed, Shelby said. But only 16 out of 50 Republicans have sought home-state projects this year and last year, with that figure set to potentially dwindle in 2023 after the retirement of lawmakers like Shelby. 

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