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Huge gap on spending bill policy riders as time dwindles

Thorniest issues are being kicked upstairs to leadership, which is otherwise occupied

“The only way forward is for everyone to drop poison pill riders. Otherwise, you open up a can of worms,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. 
“The only way forward is for everyone to drop poison pill riders. Otherwise, you open up a can of worms,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There’s roughly one month before appropriations for fiscal 2024 expire. But there are still dozens of policy disputes separating the parties that congressional leaders haven’t even begun to dig in on.

Appropriators expect Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to negotiate contested policy riders after appropriators work out programmatic funding levels in their bills. 

The 12 appropriations subcommittees are negotiating those funding levels now but are not currently discussing policy riders, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Wednesday. And that’s a problem for wrapping up the bills, because House Republicans thus far have been insistent on pushing for conservative “wins” in the final legislation, especially after Johnson agreed to the higher topline spending levels Democrats sought.

“The riders, as I’ve said, will be an issue, but we are not talking about the riders at the moment,” DeLauro said. “For me, the riders have to be off the table, as it has been historically. It becomes almost untenantable to try to pass these bills” otherwise. 

In a typical year, appropriators try to solve as many issues as possible at the subcommittee level, before kicking anything outstanding upstairs to the full committee and eventually leadership. 

However, the significant partisan differences over policy riders will leave more work than usual for leadership, posing the biggest threat to passing final appropriations by the March 1 and March 8 deadlines laid out in the latest stopgap funding law.

[Supermajority bar for spending bills a real, and risky, prospect]

Democrats say “legacy” riders from previous years should stay, but they will not accept any new riders. Senate and House Republicans refused to discuss spending levels during the fiscal 2023 process until new riders Democrats had sought were removed from the bills, DeLauro has said. 

DeLauro said there are 35 “poison pill” riders in the House’s fiscal 2024 Labor-HHS-Education bill alone, including on abortion, gun rights and other hot-button issues that are themes across the set of House GOP-drafted bills.

The House’s Agriculture bill was defeated on the House floor in part because of a rider relating to the abortion drug mifepristone. The bill would reinstate a rule that required patients to see a clinician in person to obtain the drug.

Even typically noncontroversial bills like the chamber’s Military Construction-VA bill included riders Democrats object to, including language that would make it more difficult for the VA to provide abortion services in some cases. It also included language that would bar the flying of LGBTQ+ flags at veterans’ facilities and prevent gender-affirming services for transgender individuals. 

Similar riders appear in more than one appropriation bill, House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chuck Fleischmann said, meaning it makes sense that those would be considered at a level higher than during subcommittee talks. 

“Because of these strong principled beliefs across the bills, many of which have very similar riders, it would be almost inconceivable to think either side could make concessions on those issues at this point,” Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said. “That’s something that ought to be negotiated by leadership.” 

‘Crystal clear from the beginning’

Final bills need to get 60 votes in the closely-divided Senate, where Democrats are in lockstep with their House colleagues on the riders issue.

Senate Democrats’ position has been “crystal clear from the beginning: no poison pill riders,” said Senate Financial Services Appropriations Chair Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. 

“It’s really the only way,” he said. “The only way forward is for everyone to drop poison pill riders, otherwise you open up a can of worms.” 

Every lawmaker has riders they would like to attach to the appropriations process, Van Hollen said. There are “legacy” riders in the Financial Services bill he would like to get rid of, but a return to the status-quo is the only way to advance the process, he said. 

However, House Republicans are insisting they won’t go down without a fight. 

Fleischmann said he believed Republicans would get some riders and lose on others, but said he did not think the issue would stymie the process. He said the Energy-Water subcommittee negotiations with the Senate have been “excellent,” since the riders discussion has been out of their hands.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with the money issues, and the individual accounts,” he said. “I think that bodes well for the process, it means it’s going forward.” 

This isn’t to say there are no policy-related negotiations happening at the subcommittee level. House State-Foreign Operations Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said he expects he and fellow subcommittee members would be able to hash out some policy issues.

“My subcommittee … is a little different, because it’s mostly policy,” he said. “Is every policy decision a rider? … We’ve got to deal with policy, otherwise, what the hell is a subcommittee for?” 

This report first appeared on

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