Senate Republicans have identified a potential breakthrough to resolve a hold on the chamber’s three-bill appropriations package this week, with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., requesting a vote on a bill designed to prevent government shutdowns.
Johnson said Tuesday that he would lift his objection to bundling multiple bills together in exchange for a vote on legislation proposed by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that would automatically provide continuing appropriations if spending bills for the new fiscal year have not yet been enacted by Oct. 1.
The bill, which would automatically enact a 14-day stopgap spending measure every two weeks until appropriations are enacted, would be an amendment to the Senate’s package combining its Agriculture, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD bills.
Last week, Johnson objected to Senate leaders’ unanimous consent effort to combine the bills into one package and set up votes on an initial batch of 10 amendments. The underlying vehicle is the House’s Military Construction-VA measure, the only fiscal 2024 appropriations bill the House has passed, and Johnson and some other conservatives wanted that bill to be considered individually.
“I appreciate the work the appropriators have done,” Johnson said. “If they want to do it this way — again, I don’t know why they just don’t move Milcon-VA — but if they want this minibus, fine. All you have to do is give me a vote” on Lankford’s bill, which he’s a co-sponsor of.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said leaving her conference’s Tuesday lunch that she believed there’s a possible path forward to advance the three-bill, $279 billion package.
“I believe that it was a constructive lunch, and that we may have achieved a breakthrough, but that remains to be seen,” Collins said.
Collins said she would need to see if there are any Republican objections to Lankford’s bill and she would talk to the Democrats to see if they are agreeable to allowing a vote on it.
Lankford’s bill has 12 co-sponsors, including Democrats Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona and independents Angus King of Maine and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The legislation would also limit travel, Congress’ ability to recess and adjourn and consideration of nonspending legislation until the appropriations process has been completed.
However, some believe an automatic continuing resolution would disincentivize the appropriations process, and it’s unclear if Senate leaders would be amenable to allowing a vote on Lankford’s bill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., declined to comment on the legislation Tuesday, saying he has not seen it.
Johnson said he believes the threshold should be 50 votes as it is a germane piece of legislation.
Following Johnson’s objection last week, Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., moved Monday to suspend the Senate’s germaneness rule, Rule XVI, and filed cloture on that motion to limit debate. This set up a potential Wednesday vote on cloture that has a 60-vote threshold, though adoption of Murray’s motion will require a two-thirds majority.
Murray said Tuesday that appropriators were still working toward a unanimous consent agreement, but that the procedural vote is possible Wednesday if they cannot reach an agreement.
“Here’s my message to every senator who has told me and Sen. Collins that they want to get back to regular order, they want to get back to bipartisanship, they want to avoid that massive, end-of-the-year omnibus: This is the chance to do that,” she said.
The last time the Senate voted on a motion to suspend Rule XVI was 20 years ago, on a fiscal 2024 foreign aid appropriations bill.
That effort to suspend the rule for a bipartisan version of that package was rejected overwhelmingly on a 40-57 vote. A separate motion to suspend the rule, for an amendment to the same bill that would have urged the president to release information regarding sources of foreign support for the Sept. 11 hijackers, was also defeated, 43-54.
Backup plan in sight?
Even if the Senate can get the three-bill combo back on track, more pressing is the need to keep the government open. The fiscal year concludes at the end of the month, leaving under two weeks for Congress to pass a stopgap spending bill.
The House has been going nowhere fast on such a bill, leaving some to wonder whether and when the Senate might step in.
Murray said Tuesday that Senate appropriators are working on a bipartisan continuing resolution.
“I’m working hard here in the Senate to make sure we put together a bipartisan CR that will deliver on the necessary funding for disaster relief, supporting Ukraine, paying our wildland firefighters and more,” Murray said.
Schumer said the Senate is watching to see if the House can pass a continuing resolution.
“Our first job is to get the House to pass something, we’ll see if they can,” Schumer said. “But we need a bipartisan bill in each body.”
A lack of House-originated spending bills to use as a vehicle poses a problem for senators who want to kickstart the CR process, however.
The Constitution’s Origination Clause requires all revenue-raising bills to start in the House. But that clause also historically has been interpreted as applying to all “money” bills, including those that spend money raised by lawmakers’ taxing power.
If that’s the case, then the Senate doesn’t have much to work with besides the House-passed Military Construction-VA bill, which is already in use. The House couldn’t muster the votes for the rule on its fiscal 2024 Defense bill Tuesday, which went down on a 212-214 vote with five GOP conservatives joining all Democrats.
However, enforcement of that stipulation has been spotty and inconclusive. According to a Congressional Research Service study, in the late 1800s the Senate originated a few spending bills and sent them to the House, though in the 1900s the House rejected such attempts and sent them back to the Senate on grounds they violated the Origination Clause.
On two occasions, House and Senate committees investigated the constitutional question. Both an 1881 House Judiciary Committee study and a 1963 report to the Senate Government Operations Committee, as it was then known, found that “there was no constitutional basis for the practice of the House originating appropriations.”
David Lerman contributed to this report.