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House appropriations bill sprint seeks to buck recent history

Divisions among House Democrats spell trouble for the Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce-Justice-Science bills in particular

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has said she wants to get all 12 spending bills on the floor before August.
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has said she wants to get all 12 spending bills on the floor before August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As usual this time of year, the House majority is trying to rally its troops to pass 12 of the annual appropriations bills before the August break, scheduled to begin July 29.

Sources familiar with the process are skeptical that that much more than half of them will get that far, given House Democratic leaders have a slim margin for error on partisan bills.

House Democrats can lose at most four votes and still pass legislation without GOP support, and no Republican votes are expected on the spending bills judging from their party-line votes in committee. Divisions among House Democrats over defense spending levels, border security policies and law enforcement funding spell trouble for the Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce-Justice-Science bills in particular. 

The Labor-HHS-Education bill also faces difficulty getting enough Democrats’ buy-in, in part because of opposition to an amendment adopted in committee that would temporarily continue the pandemic-era “Title 42” public health directive former President Donald Trump imposed allowing border agents to expel migrants regardless of asylum claims. The Biden administration tried to rescind the policy, but a federal judge blocked the move.

While party leaders attempt to assuage lingering concerns, the House is set to consider a roughly $405 billion package of six bills this week. The vehicle is the Transportation-HUD measure, which will also carry the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Military Construction-VA bills.

Democrats are confident they can get those across the finish line, but of the six remaining bills, the State-Foreign Operations measure appears to have the best chance of getting to the floor, sources said.

‘Ideological approach’

Democratic leaders and lawmakers say they are working to build support for the bills that face the most serious obstacles.

But privately, there is considerable uncertainty about how much can be accomplished with two weeks left before the August recess, and the possibility other legislation could crowd out appropriations bills on the House floor.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said last week she wants to get all 12 bills on the floor before August. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., set a goal of passing the six-bill appropriations package and then bringing at least three more spending bills to the floor the week of July 25.

“We should be able to do all 12,” David E. Price, D-N.C., chairman of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, said. “And we’re certainly aiming to do all 12.” 

But Price said some Democrats’ reluctance to vote for military spending, immigration enforcement funding or law enforcement spending in the measures would pose challenges to passing the bills. 

“That kind of ideological approach is ill-suited to writing a budget and to appropriations,” Price said. “But when Republicans offer no cooperation whatsoever, then we become dependent on members who may, I hope not, may have that kind of viewpoint on some of these bills.”  

The fiscal 2022 Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce-Justice-Science bills did not make it to the floor last year. The disagreements that held them up are only magnified with Democratic House members facing midterm elections in an inhospitable political environment.

Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said she is working toward bringing the Defense bill to the floor. She and DeLauro are in talks with members now. 

But progressive members like Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., want to see a lower level of defense spending.  

“We need to really recreate the world in a way where there’s equity and peace, and the consistent growth of the military budget isn’t going to get us there,” he said.  

The Defense appropriations bill carries a $761 billion price tag for Pentagon accounts, in line with the White House budget request, which is $33 billion above fiscal 2022 comparable levels. Still, it’s about $31 billion below authorized levels the House passed Thursday on a 329-101 vote as part of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the NDAA on final passage. More than half the caucus, or 137 Democrats, voted for an amendment to strip money added above the White House request, while 77 Democrats backed an amendment to cut the bill’s authorization by $100 billion.

Mike Quigley, D-Ill., chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said the Commerce-Science-Justice bill was one that could also face challenges. 

Bowman said he wasn’t sure how he would vote on the Commerce-Science-Justice bill, which includes a project he proposed providing funding aimed at helping youth involved in the justice system.  

“We want to see a lot more investment in things like that,” he said. “I think we’re still archaic in our thinking around justice in our country. … What we have is a prison-industrial complex that doesn’t rehabilitate, we really need to do more around rehabilitation.”  

‘Tough bill to pass’

The Homeland Security bill also faces criticism, Quigley said.  

“Past performance is the best indicator of future performance,” he said. “That’s a tough bill to pass.”  

Prior to final action on the annual spending bills, the House hasn’t taken up an initial Homeland Security appropriations bill on the floor since the fiscal 2018 process, when Republicans controlled the chamber.

Price said appropriators are telling reluctant House Democrats the House will have more leverage in appropriations conference negotiations with the Senate if it passes a Homeland bill. 

“It’s to their advantage to pass these bills … where their concerns have been fully taken into account,” Price said. 

Democrats could put a three-bill package on the floor next week consisting of Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch and State-Foreign Operations, but there’s some doubt that will occur.

Making matters more difficult, the House deliberations are happening at a time when their Senate counterparts are stuck and haven’t been able to move ahead even in committee, let alone move bills to the Senate floor.

To some House Democrats, the lack of movement makes it important for them to get out in front and establish a negotiating position for eventual conference negotiations. But without knowing even the starting point for where the Senate wants to go on funding levels and policy riders, it’s harder for rank-and-file House lawmakers to get invested in putting their stamp on the process.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., plans to post his committee’s 12 bills at the end of July and skip markups unless he can reach agreement with Republicans on a discretionary topline or the GOP is willing to participate in markups. 

But that’s already right up against the House’s August break, and McCollum called on the Senate to show its figures more quickly to expedite the process.  

“We need the Senate to start being realistic about what’s happening here and start showing their numbers, their bills and everything else, because the Defense bill doesn’t stand alone,” she said. 

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