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Combo appropriations package hits the skids in Senate

A Republican senator slows effort to pass three fiscal 2024 spending bills together

Sen. Ron Johnson wants to debate each spending bill individually.
Sen. Ron Johnson wants to debate each spending bill individually. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate progress on a $279 billion package of three fiscal 2024 appropriations bills slowed to a crawl Thursday even after lawmakers overwhelmingly signaled their desire to call up the measure for debate and amendments.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., blocked a unanimous consent request to package the three bills together and set up votes on an initial batch of 10 amendments, including a handful sponsored by Republicans. His concern, shared by others such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., was that the chamber ought to be debating one spending bill at a time.

“I’m pushing for functionality to be returned to this chamber,” Johnson said before lodging his formal objection. “What’s wrong with taking up just one bill? Pass it, move on to the next.”

That move left the chamber at an impasse even after senators agreed 91-7 to the motion to proceed to the three-bill combo earlier in the day. But even some who voted to start debate expressed reservations about the process, particularly the fact that Senate leaders were trying to tack two more spending bills onto the main legislative vehicle, the House-passed Military Construction-VA bill.

Johnson voted for the motion to proceed, as did Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who’s also among those objecting to combining the three bills into one.

“At the very least, we ought to have an amendment process, but I really think that the leverage to try to reduce the size and scope of spending is better to do individual bills,” Paul said. “People talk all the time about regular order around here. Most people believe that regular order is actually one bill at a time, not three at a time.”

He said the Military Construction-VA bill, including the Senate’s version that was part of the three-bill substitute amendment, was “probably the most popular” among the three in part because its topline spending level, $154.4 billion, was similar to the House’s. But the Senate’s Agriculture and Transportation-HUD bills substantially eclipse the House versions, largely due to a $10.8 billion emergency add-on Senate appropriators made.

Paul as well as Mike Braun, R-Ind., who also has an objection to the UC, said it was possible senators might agree to combine the three bills in exchange for an open amendment process. But Paul argued there was “more leverage” in a House-Senate conference committee if they do one bill at a time.

Senate Appropriations panel leaders blasted the holdup in floor remarks after Johnson’s objection.

“The senator from Wisconsin has repeatedly said, and I agree with him, that we should not end up with a 4,000-page omnibus bill at the end of the year with little consideration, largely drafted by a small group of people,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “So why is the senator from Wisconsin objecting to proceeding to three appropriations bills that were reported unanimously . . . by the Senate Appropriations Committee after a great deal of work?”

Collins, the top GOP appropriator, and Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., pointed out that the UC request contained votes on amendments from Republican Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Lee of Utah as well as Paul.

Vance’s amendment would block funding to enforce any COVID-19 mask mandate; Blackburn’s would bar any unmanned aircraft systems contracts for companies that do business with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela or Cuba; Lee’s would require congressional approval of major administrative rulemakings; and Paul’s would swap in a substitute spending bill with substantially less money.

“Is the senator from Wisconsin opposed to the amendments that will be offered by Sens. Paul, Vance, Ernst, Blackburn and Lee?” Collins asked. “Because by objecting he is preventing them from being considered by the full Senate.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters that one way to resolve the impasse might be to just limit amendments to the Military Construction-VA portion of the bill, which has more bipartisan support.

Alternatively, he said an option was to simply keep the package broken into its three parts and take them up individually. “We’ll see,” Thune said.

Credit card dispute

Objections over process weren’t the only ones standing in the way of moving forward on the three-bill spending package.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said he’s blocking a UC to combine the bills and get moving unless he gets a vote on his amendment with Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., that mirrors their bill aimed at loosening Visa and Mastercard’s credit card industry dominance and reducing interchange fees they charge to retailers.

“They need to give us the vote. I think it’s a very simple vote to ask for,” Marshall said. He added that he’s had “very, very positive conversations” with leadership and that he’s escalated the issue because Visa and Mastercard are due to raise rates next month.

Thune and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., have been working to broker a compromise that would give his and other senators’ amendments “an opportunity to vote.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he would maintain his own “hold” on the package unless he received a vote on a particular amendment, which he would not specify.

Emergency disaster aid might also be part of the upcoming debate, if the Senate can ever get on the bill.

The top Democrat on the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, Brian Schatz from wildfire-stricken Hawaii, has a series of amendments totaling $25.7 billion in emergency spending, mainly for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and HUD Community Development Block Grants.

Schatz was seen huddling with Democratic leaders earlier on the floor, though it wasn’t immediately clear what the discussion was about.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he was blocking consideration of the spending package unless he received a separate vote on his stand-alone disaster aid replenishment bill.

Murray said work would continue in the interim to clear a managers’ package of noncontroversial amendments as well as others that might receive votes. But the chamber was clearly running out of time to make any progress this week, with the Senate scheduled to be out on Friday and lawmakers starting to head for the exits.

“This is what happens when you put multiple bills on the floor two weeks before the deadline and you need to get unanimous consent,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, referring to the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.

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