Clock Running Out on 'Regular Order' for Spending Bills

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By Nancy Ognanovich

May 9 — House and Senate Republican leaders' plans to return to “regular order” and send individual spending bills to President Barack Obama's desk this year are increasingly in jeopardy, causing K Street practitioners to prepare anew for a year-end negotiation over an omnibus package.

The biggest threat to “regular order” plans appears to be the clock, which reflects early targets for recess to permit lawmakers to head to political conventions and out on the campaign trail beginning July 15. In the House, there are only 33 days remaining before the start of the seven-week recess.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) won't bring any of the fiscal year 2017 bills to the floor until May 15 at the earliest, and even then support for the measures is uncertain. The House Freedom Caucus and other conservative Republicans oppose funding levels tied to the $1.070 trillion discretionary spending cap set by last fall's two-year deal. Democrats, who helped get that agreement and the subsequent FY 2016 omnibus through the chamber, also are taking a wait-and-see stance on the bills.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who planned to move one bill a week over about 12 weeks, has failed to convince lawmakers to wrap up work on the first one—the popular Energy and Water measure—after two weeks' work (see related story in this issue). Even if that measure clears the chamber, other bills in the queue are expected to encounter opposition from both Republicans and Democrats.

Jim Dyer, former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said he already is preparing his clients at Podesta Group to expect the usual year-end negotiation over a 12-bill omnibus.

“I tell them that the calendar works against us and the reality of life is we're not going to have a final conference report on a bill until December at the earliest,” Dyer, a principal at the firm, told Bloomberg BNA.

‘Come to Jesus' Time

The House Appropriations Committee chaired by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) moved the first batch of bills in committee in April. Next on tap is the massive Defense spending bill, which will have its first markup shortly after the House returns from recess on May 10.

Without a budget resolution, which sets a discretionary spending total for appropriators to follow, Rogers said he has to wait until May 15 to bring the first of those bills to the floor. He said it's still possible leaders will take action to “deem” the $1.070 trillion discretionary cap in the deal and then try to move the bills ahead.

The Senate already took that step to allow the Appropriations Committee chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to bring up the first of the four bills approved so far by the panel.

The $37.5 billion Energy and Water measure (H.R. 2028) is considered the “test case” for McConnell's strategy. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supported plans to move on to the bill, but the eleventh-hour offering of what the White House labeled a “poison pill” rider dealing with Iran “heavy water” sales jeopardized Democrats' support. Amid much uncertainty, Cochran's committee hasn't scheduled markups for the next set of bills.

Bill Hoagland, who served as director of budget and appropriations for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), told Bloomberg BNA that the next several days will be a “come to Jesus” time for both Ryan and McConnell to settle their budget and spending bill strategy.

“[I]f ever we were going to do 12 appropriations bills and get them done and not havea continuing resolution, this was the year to do it.”

“[I]f ever we were going to do 12 appropriations bills and get them done and not have a continuing resolution, this was the year to do it,” said Hoagland, who also served previously as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

But Hoagland agrees the prospects for finalizing many bills and avoiding a year-end omnibus are fading.

“[A]s much as some of us had hoped that this year would be different, it doesn't look like it's going to be different,” he said.

McConnell ‘Minibus Strategy.'

Hoagland, now senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said McConnell decided to jump-start the process by using House “shell” bills as vehicles for moving Senate versions this spring. The bills available to him were the Energy and Water bill (H.R. 2028) and a handful of others that were passed by the House but not finalized last year.

Hoagland said McConnell had planned to package the 12 bills in four “minibuses” to expedite action by the July 15 recess, but action on the first one—which was to include Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA) and Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD)—is uncertain now. That first minibus also was mentioned as a vehicle to carry a $1.9 billion supplemental for Zika virus funds requested by Obama.

“If the strategy all along was to expedite getting appropriations bills done by doing these minibuses and the first one can't even get started—which should have been done two weeks ago—it does suggest that strategy may have to come under reconsideration,” Hoagland said.

For its part, the White House already declared the appropriations process “moribund” and said it doesn't want the supplemental attached to measures that have no chance of being enacted before next fall (See previous story, 04/27/16).

Stan Collender, a former House and Senate budget aide who is now executive vice president of Qorvis MSLGROUP, said McConnell isn't under a lot of pressure from members to push a budget or appropriations bills.

McConnell is “going to continue to publicly say that the plan is to bring the billsup but he's clearly not twisting arms in a way to make it happen. He doesn't wantto make his members vote on amendments that would be politically difficult, especiallyfor the 24 [Republican] members up for re-election.”

“He's going to continue to publicly say that the plan is to bring the bills up but he's clearly not twisting arms in a way to make it happen,” Collender told Bloomberg BNA. “He doesn't want to make his members vote on amendments that would be politically difficult, especially for the 24 [Republican] members up for re-election.”

‘Limp Along' to July 15

Dyer said the end result of the lost momentum will be the usual mix of unfinished bills that others on K Street said has become the “regular order” they've come to expect.

“I have this theory, and tell me if I'm wrong, but if you go for a protracted period of time without doing anything, your incentive to do something diminishes with the passing of time,” Dyer said.

Appropriators in both chambers will continue preparing and moving their bills, but few if any have any chance to be finalized and sent to Obama's desk before year's end, he said.

“I think you just limp forward a little bit,” Dyer said. “Both committees will probably produce all their bills [but] we'll wait to see how many more get to the floor. Maybe not that many more in the Senate, unless something changes. In the House you do maybe seven or eight.”

One positive for House appropriators, Dyer said, is that, with the exception of the Defense authorization bill, there are few “must-do” bills that will also require floor time this summer. Even with opposition from conservatives, some spending bills can pass if they make it to the floor, he said.

Collender was more pessimistic, saying he believes only the annual Defense appropriations bill has a good chance of passage in the House. But even that bill, he said, could get derailed over a fight involving the use of Overseas Contingency Operations account money to augment regular discretionary funds for the Pentagon.

“When will they pull the plug? My guess is it will be earlier rather than later,” Collender said. “They'd like to get as much of this out of the way before the conventions as possible. It could be that they give up the ghost around the beginning of July.”

“My prediction is they come back in September and do a CR 'til mid-December, and thenthey'll go home and campaign as fast as their little legs will take them.”
Politics of Continuing Resolutions

Increasingly, there is speculation about the timing and length of the next continuing resolution that will be required to cover federal spending when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The House plans to be out all of October and the first part of November; the Senate has a similar schedule.

Both the short calendar and political considerations will drive leaders' decisions on that stopgap measure, Collender and others said.

Collender said Republicans might try to pass a continuing resolution before the start of the summer recess that goes through mid-December, if they believe Democrats have a good chance to regain control of the Senate.

“But if they think the Republicans are going to win the Senate it will go all the way through March,” Collender said.

Hoagland and Dyer, however, said they don't see a CR being taken up until September.

“My prediction is they come back in September and do a CR 'til mid-December, and then they'll go home and campaign as fast as their little legs will take them,” Dyer said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at