Markups? Floor votes? Senate appropriators say ‘yes we can’
Panel has marked up only three bills in the past three years; none have reached the floor
New Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., knows that returning the chamber’s appropriations process to regular order “won’t be a walk in the park,” as she said during a news conference last week.
Murray and new ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, are vowing to mark up bills in committee and move them across the floor, which would require 60 votes. The need to eventually work with the new Republican majority in the House, and the Senate’s wide ideological differences, are daunting obstacles to this goal.
The committee has marked up only three bills during the past three years, and no Senate appropriations bills have reached the floor during that time. The last time the Senate passed any individual appropriations bills was in 2019, during the fiscal 2020 process, when the chamber passed four bills in one combo package.
Despite the obvious challenges to a bipartisan appropriations process, senators on both sides of the aisle are saying they are optimistic the chamber can return to regular order.
“There’s just a real commitment, I think, on both sides of the aisle to get that done,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, top Republican on the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee. “It’s one of those things that’s going to be difficult, but I have great hope it will actually happen.”
Murray said this month that she and Collins are working on a topline discretionary spending limit, which would be the first step toward allowing the dozen subcommittees to write their bills. However, in recent years, a large gap between the parties on how much to allocate to defense and nondefense accounts has complicated these negotiations, a dynamic that shows no signs of changing.
After President Joe Biden released his budget request last week, Murray and Collins issued a joint statement pledging to write their fiscal 2024 bills “as quickly as possible.”
After holding hearings with agency heads, the Senate will try to draft and mark up each of the 12 appropriations bills and bring them to the floor, Murray and Collins said.
“We have made it clear that a return to regular order is good for the process and for the country,” Murray and Collins said. “No one is saying it’s going to be easy but we believe senators on both sides of the aisle share our commitment to work together, find common ground, and make progress for the American people.”
Both Democratic and Republican appropriators say they are hopeful that Murray and Collins will get the committee back on track in terms of moving bipartisan bills individually, before final negotiations with the House.
That will help avoid another omnibus package that runs into the thousands of pages and which often comes up for a vote shortly after being unveiled, they said.
“I think people are really, very, very frustrated, very tired with these humongous bills we have at the end of the year,” Boozman said.
“An omnibus is just a way for leadership to hide the spending, and get its own priorities, instead of the priorities of the American people,” added John Kennedy of Louisiana, the top Republican on Senate Energy-Water appropriations. “If we’re just going to start doing an omnibus . . . why do we have an Appropriations Committee?”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said both Murray and Collins are committed to getting the appropriations process done on time.
“I would bet you, not a lot of money, but a beer, that everyone on the Appropriations Committee wants to get it done by the end of September,” he said. “When there’s that kind of push, especially from leadership, there’s a real chance of making this happen.”
Murray and Collins on Wednesday laid out a tentative schedule of subcommittee hearings featuring agency heads starting this week and stretching out until early June.
Under the 1974 law establishing the current budget process, the Senate Budget Committee is supposed to make the chamber's first move in the fiscal 2024 appropriations process by adopting a budget resolution that would set the topline spending level.
However, it appears unlikely that the committee will pursue a budget resolution, and Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said last week that he wanted to see Biden’s budget and the House GOP plan before deciding how to move forward.
Collins said she suspects she, Murray, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would soon start to have conversations about the topline, though she noted appropriators are waiting to see what steps the Budget Committee will take.
“If the Budget Committee . . . does the budget resolution by the April 1 deadline, and if it's conferenced by the April 15 deadline, then the toplines will be established for us,” Collins said. “Which is the way the system is supposed to work.”
However, it’s hard to see a path toward both chambers adopting and conferencing budget resolutions next month. Instead, appropriators will likely, once again, have to negotiate a more informal topline figure.
This number would likely need buy-in from Schumer and McConnell, and reaching an early agreement poses challenges for both parties.
Democrats may be hesitant to agree to a spending cap that would be lower than they would desire in order to get support from Senate Republicans.
Biden wants roughly $1.73 trillion in fiscal 2024 appropriations, a nearly 6 percent increase above the current year. Domestic and foreign aid programs are in line for more than two-thirds of that boost.
Defense hawks are already complaining that the military component is too small. At the same time, conservative House Republicans want to cut Biden’s request by over $230 billion, back to fiscal 2022 levels, based on Office of Management and Budget estimates.
With the House certain to write bills at a significantly lower level, negotiating the Senate’s topline down in talks with Republicans in that chamber could weaken Democrats’ bargaining power in eventual conversations with the House.
For Senate Republicans, a bipartisan topline figure would almost certainly be much higher that McConnell’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., would be likely to accept.
Senate Republicans may be hesitant to agree to spending levels much higher than their House counterparts are pushing for, at least at the outset. McConnell has made clear McCarthy will be taking the lead in talks with the White House about spending restraints in exchange for GOP votes to raise the debt ceiling.
For now, Senate GOP appropriators say they’ll try to see what can pass in that chamber before dealing with the House.
“We’ll see if we can get a bill that can get 60 votes on the Senate floor, and then negotiate with the House,” said Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Republican on Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations.
Approving bills in committee would likely be an easier lift than passing them through the full Senate and would give the Senate a negotiating position when conversations start with the House, said Mark Harkins, a former Hill staffer who now focuses on appropriations for Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute.
Harkins said getting bills out of committee would be easier as they would need just a simple majority in committee to report the bills.
In recent years, the House has been able to report bills out of committee and get at least some across the floor. For example, the full House passed a package of six appropriations bills last July after passing all the bills through the appropriations committee.
“The House at least has a product that they can say has been blessed, at a minimum, by the House Appropriations Committee, and oftentime by the full House,” Harkins said. “That gives the House real power in the negotiations, to say, we actually had real members who voted for this,” and “that’s why I think it’s important for the Senate to at least get something out of their committee.”
Republican senators are incentivized to approve bills in committee to ensure that priorities for their states are included, Harkins said. It’s much harder to convince the House to get on board for priorities that haven’t been passed out of committee, Harkins said.
“If you’re somebody like [Sen.] Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska], and you want to make sure there is stuff in there for Alaska, this is your chance, because you make sure it's in the bill coming out of the Appropriations Committee, so at least the Senate has a negotiating point for this thing for Alaska,” Harkins said.