Endgame Strategy in Flux as GOP Works to Avert Funding Lapse

Daily Report for Executives provides in-depth coverage of unfolding legislative, regulatory, and judicial news from the nation’s capital, the states, and around the world. This daily news service...

By Nancy Ognanovich

Aug. 25 —Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are positioning themselves for this year's appropriations endgame—which will start in September with a battle over competing plans to fund the federal government.

Party leaders are said to be considering options ranging from a three-month to a one-year government funding plan that will be discussed soon after lawmakers return to work Sept. 6. While the length and details of the competing proposals vary, all aim to prevent any threat of a new government shutdown in the critical weeks before November elections.

Work on a new continuing resolution to ensure no replay of the 2013 crisis is expected to dominate the September session of the House and Senate and crowd out many other matters. Aides in both parties told Bloomberg BNA that negotiations over the CR's details will likely consume the first half of the month and the remainder will be used to push it through the House and then the Senate.

Action on a new stopgap is necessary because none of the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills have been finalized and sent to President Barack Obama's desk this year. Minus action by Congress, money for the federal government runs out Sept. 30.

While stressing that no decisions have been made, a senior Republican aide still said a three-month CR covering the federal government until after the election could make sense.

“Then you could decide in December whether we want to move this to March or move it to 2017 so that President [Donald] Trump can sign bills and negotiate bills,” the aide said. “There's benefit to waiting to decide until you know for sure what the politics of 2017 are going to look like.”

Minibus-CR Strategies

A short-CR extending funding a few weeks past the election already is the favored plan of House and Senate appropriators, who said they want to write an omnibus combining the eight regular bills they cleared in committee this summer (See previous story, 07/15/16). They reflect the $1.070 trillion cap in last fall's budget deal but essentially represent a freeze in discretionary spending for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) could both face the loss of their gavels at year's end and want to wrap up fiscal 2017 work this year. Rogers is being forced to give up his chairmanship by House term-limit rules, while Cochran could lose his leadership role if Democrats retake the Senate this fall. Meanwhile, Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) plans to retire at year's end.

As September begins, the House has passed five bills complying with the bipartisan budget deal. But the outlook for many more of the individual bills is mixed at best (See previous story, 07/11/16). Among other things, the bills are loaded with controversial policy riders that Democrats and the White House oppose. In addition, there is a quickly shrinking amount of time to move the measures across the floor. In total, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) only plans for lawmakers to be in session 17 days. Only nine of those are full working days.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) attempt at “regular order” was even less successful, with the chamber passing one stand-alone bill and two others as part of a “minibus” that also included $1.1 billion in supplemental funds to address the Zika virus.

Aides in both chambers said the leaders may attempt to bring up more bills in early September. McConnell plans to try again to force action on the massive Department of Defense appropriations bill over Democratic objections, while Ryan has considered following McConnell's strategy to combine measures.

“That's a possibility, you can't rule it out,” the Republican aide said. “Minibus or minibuses is one of the pieces of the conversation.”

But a Democratic aide said a bicameral plan to expedite bills by bundling them now appears to be on the wane.

“The idea of a minibus is fading, and instead it seems more to be something simple just to get them through the election,” the aide said.

But while the aim may be to do a straight CR, leaders will be under new pressure to attach Zika funds that earlier were included in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (H.R. 4974) bill, the aide said (See previous story, 07/19/16).

CR Checklist

•Overall spending levels

•Defense versus non-defense spending

•Zika money and other supplemental spending

•Inclusion of anomalies or bump ups for programs

•Addition of non-spending policy matters

Ghosts of Shutdowns Past

A simple CR is seen as Republicans' best bet to avoid a prolonged fight that could resurrect the specter of previous government shutdowns that jeopardized political support for the party.

With Trump trailing in polls and the GOP's control of the Senate threatened, McConnell and Ryan are expected to move quickly when they return to assure the public and lawmakers alike that funding the government and avoiding a shutdown is a top priority (207 DER A-1, 10/25/13). Beyond delivering high-visibility statements, the leaders will be meeting with members privately to discuss the various options, aides said.

Ryan, in particular, has to negotiate the competing demands of appropriators wanting to finish their work this year and the House Freedom Caucus calling for matters to be held over until March or even later when a new president will be able to have a say in spending decisions. Conservatives also are opposed to extending funding in a CR at current levels or the $1.070 trillion level agreed already negotiated for 2017. They have proposed cutting the total by $30 billion.

Ryan may require the weeks of Sept. 5 and Sept. 12 to persuade House members to support a plan but it would have to be ready for the floor by the week of Sept. 19, aides said. That would give the House time to consider it and send it to the Senate for action before Sept. 30, they said. However, they said McConnell still plans to have the Senate in session part of the week of Oct. 4.

The Obama administration is expected to jump-start the month-long process when it sends its list of “anomalies” to Capitol Hill sometime during the week of Aug. 29. The proposed list for inclusion in a CR is expected to include “bump ups” for some federal programs but could also call for more Zika funds or even non-spending items.

The senior Republican aide said the contents of that plan have to be judged credible and shared widely but suggested that GOP leaders already are set to push rank-and-file members to back the funding already called for in the budget deal.

What's needed, he said, is a “clarion clear plan for [an] approach that doesn't leave anybody confused about the objective of ensuring the government operates at the lawfully agreed spending level for the amount of time that the House and Senate and the president agreed upon.”

Zika, Pentagon Money

Aside from the length of the CR and overall funding, aides in both parties said there would be a fight over how the monies are divided between defense and non-defense programs. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to accelerate his own calls for Republican leaders to resist efforts to boost the Pentagon's funds at the expense of domestic program spending. Reid and other Democrats oppose Republican efforts to raise so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account monies that are outside of the regular discretionary caps.

That issue will be aired as soon as McConnell again tries to move on to the DOD appropriations bill (H.R. 5293), now planned for the evening of Sept. 6.

“Reid isn't going to support taking up that bill until there are assurances that Republicans won't increase defense without also increasing non-defense,” another Democratic aide said.

Meanwhile, the senior Republican aide said conservatives' plan to reduce overall spending to the $1.040 trillion level would mean defense would be underfunded by several billion dollars. Even the current $1.067 trillion total is inadequate to cover military spending, he said. He described $1.070 trillion as the minimum necessary.

“All roads right now below $1.070 [trillion] lead to the Department of Defense being underfunded and those are probably not roads that Republicans care to start off cheerily skipping down,” he said.

Negotiators on the CR also are preparing for a new fight over Zika virus funding, which Obama first requested last spring. With the number of Zika cases rising—including in the key election battlefield of Florida—Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) already have stepped up calls for lawmakers to simply pass the $1.1 billion Zika spending plan approved by the Senate last summer and drop efforts to pass the Milcon-VA bill (H.R. 2577) that emerged from a House-Senate conference committee with Zika funds but also “poison pill” riders targeting funding for birth control programs and promoting the display of the Confederate flag.

Other matters emerged during lawmakers' seven-week recess, including losses sustained from widespread flooding in Louisiana. Obama approved a series of disaster declarations for the state, and more than 120,000 individuals applied for federal assistance. While aides said existing funds should address immediate needs, they said the Louisiana congressional delegation may seek language reducing the matching share required to receive assistance.

Delaying Decisions to December

But aides in both parties said the complexity of many issues and the realities of the calendar strengthen the case for keeping things simple and putting off many decisions until December.

Among other things, the senior Republican aide said the real needs of the Pentagon won't be fully known for months.

“Another argument for a shorter CR is to let the department work through its process and ultimately give us the numbers that are necessary to finish the defense spending piece as well as the defense authorization [bill] and those just aren't available in September,” he said.

The authorization bill (S. 2943) was passed this summer and is now the subject of a House-Senate conference committee.

Another sweetener for lawmakers could be the possibility of a year-end spending vehicle that leaders combine with a tax package, the aide said.

“The argument for a three-month CR probably will boil down to whether we want to reserve the right for Congress to decide whether or not to make discreet spending decisions once the election is over rather than dealing that away,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.