Omnibus text delayed over FBI headquarters issue

Senate Appropriations chairman says if the matter isn’t resolved soon, lawmakers might as well pass a full-year stopgap bill

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was a lead negotiator on the massive bill to fund the federal government in fiscal 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was a lead negotiator on the massive bill to fund the federal government in fiscal 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 19, 2022 at 7:17pm, Updated at 9:00pm

Release of a massive $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package with all manner of unrelated add-ons was taking longer than expected, with text still being finalized Monday evening.

The chief holdup appeared to be language Democrats were trying to negotiate regarding the FBI's headquarters relocation project.

Both versions of the Financial Services spending bills released earlier this year would appropriate $500 million for the new, consolidated suburban headquarters project, which the Biden administration restarted.

Both bills also contain language stipulating that new and prior appropriations for the project could only be used for building the facility at one of three sites: two in Maryland and one in Virginia.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., characterized it as a "Dem on Dem" issue. A source familiar with the holdup agreed with that characterization and confirmed it was the FBI headquarters language hanging things up — and that House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., was involved.

Hoyer aides did not respond to a request for comment. But the outgoing No. 2 House Democrat is a longtime proponent of bringing the FBI headquarters to the Maryland suburbs and helped push the House's spending bill provision.

Hoyer is likely taking the top spot on the House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee next year. The current chair on the Senate side is Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who inserted the same provision into his version.

Maryland vs. Virginia

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. was trying to resolve the FBI issue before lawmakers had to give up and default to a yearlong stopgap funding measure.

The problem now is that the General Services Administration, which is running the site selection process, in conjunction with the FBI in September released a new set of criteria they’ll use to ultimately choose the new site.

Among several factors the agencies are considering, “FBI Mission Requirements” receives the largest weighting; among those requirements is “Proximity to the FBI Academy Quantico.” Of the three sites, the proposed Springfield, Va., site is easily the closest. The two Maryland sites under consideration are in Greenbelt and Landover.

After the new September criteria and further refinements in November were released, Hoyer went to work trying to “de-weight” the criteria so it wouldn’t skew in favor of the Virginia site. He’s pitched several iterations of proposed language that would ensure equal weighting to all of the new GSA-FBI criteria or simply ignore it and rely on the older guidance.

One fix Hoyer has floated would provide equal weight to the "FBI Mission Requirements" and and ones that would promote sustainability and advance racial equity. The Maryland locations are both in Prince George's County, which has a majority Black population, and the Greenbelt site is located at the metro station.

The prior selection criteria also favors a Maryland location. Virginia Democrats don't want to override the new GSI-FBI criteria and are frustrated Hoyer is trying to hold up the must-pass omnibus over the matter, according to sources familiar with the situation. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are trying to convince Hoyer to back down for the time being, one of the sources said.

Senators delayed a possible 5:30 p.m. vote on a motion to proceed to the omnibus vehicle as a result of the holdup, though senior members in that chamber said they expected remaining issues to be closed out soon.

Leahy said earlier Monday afternoon that while “virtually all” spending portions of the bill were closed out, some questions remained on unrelated provisions that are being included in the bill.

Leahy said release of the bill text, which would fund the government for the current fiscal year that started in October, could potentially slip to Tuesday. But he said that would be the "absolute latest" given lawmakers' desire to get out of Washington for the holidays and to beat what's expected to be a major winter storm.

“We thought it would be [tonight], but now I don’t know,” Leahy said. “Some of the leadership had some questions.”

Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Jon Tester, D-Mont., said they were still "dotting the i's and crossing the t's" but that he still expected text release late Monday.

Defense vs. nondefense

Details of the deal remain under wraps, though the level of defense spending is expected to be around $858 billion, a nearly 10 percent increase over the last fiscal year and the level laid out in the recently cleared fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill.

The nondefense level will have a lower percentage increase, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying Monday the rate that nondefense spending will rise is below inflation, if veterans spending is not included.

“The bipartisan bill that our colleagues have negotiated equips our armed forces with the resources they need while cutting nondefense, nonveteran spending in real dollars,” McConnell said. “This is a strong outcome for Republicans and, much more importantly, it’s the outcome that our nation’s security actually needs.”

If the final package sticks with numbers previously floated by Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., domestic and foreign aid accounts excluding veterans health care would see a roughly 6 percent boost over the prior fiscal year. Given the latest annualized consumer price index numbers show inflation rising at a 7 percent clip, that could be considered an inflation-adjusted cut, as McConnell laid out.

However, on veterans health care it did appear that some extra mandatory funds would be provided outside of the regular appropriations limits.

Senate Military Construction-VA ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., said his side agreed to speed up the release of funding to help take care of veterans suffering from toxic exposure-related illnesses under legislation enacted this summer. But he said any existing VA health spending that was already in the pipeline before the toxic exposure law passed would be kept discretionary.

Schumer said that while the bill is not everything either side wanted, it is preferable to the yearlong continuing resolution Democrats had promoted as the alternative or a government shutdown.

“I’m confident both sides will find things they can enthusiastically support,” he said. “It’s not going to be everything anybody wanted. That’s for sure.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., described the level of nondefense spending as “disappointing."

The two sides initially announced a framework deal Dec. 13, and appropriators worked through the weekend finalizing the text. Last Friday, President Joe Biden signed a one-week CR to give appropriators more time to wrap up the bill ahead of this Friday’s deadline.

The measure was expected to contain a hefty supplemental funding package, which Senate State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair Chris Coons, D-Del., said could total around $39 billion for Ukraine. Tens of billions more were expected for victims of natural disasters.

Other panels were negotiating the final details of their own additions to the mega spending bill.

Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary panel in his chamber, said he didn't expect any immigration-related riders on the omnibus. Tax writers didn't expect anything beyond a bipartisan retirement savings package. A variety of health care-related "extenders" were in the mix for inclusion as well, as well as provisions to delay planned Medicare payment cuts.

Lawmakers were considering the addition of legislation that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine.

And a Senate-drafted election overhaul bill was also likely to travel on the spending bill.

Procedural delays

Despite the ability for senators to drag out the process procedurally, if the bill is filed Tuesday, there's likely enough time this week to get the bill passed through both chambers before funding runs out Friday at midnight.

However, it could disrupt travel plans if any senators object to speeding up the process. If cloture is filed on Tuesday, the earliest a cloture vote could take place is Thursday. Then there are up to 30 hours of post-cloture time, if debate time isn't yielded back, which could put final passage as late as Friday in the Senate.

Then the House would need to clear the package later on Friday, and the mammoth bill would then need to be enrolled and signed by Pelosi, and then sent to the White House for Biden's signature. It's not clear that could occur in time to beat the midnight Friday deadline, particularly with the storm coming, though agencies don't typically start the shutdown process if a presidential signature is imminent.

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