$800 Billion ‘Minibus’ Hits House Floor, Amid Uncertain Budget Outlook

By Nancy Ognanovich

House Republican leaders are putting more pressure on lawmakers to pass a four-bill, nearly $800 billion “minibus” appropriations package before week’s end, legislation that marks the official start of this year’s struggle to enact a spending plan for the federal government.

GOP leaders planned to hold lawmakers in session until the early morning of July 27 to finish work on the first three items in the huge package for fiscal year 2018—the $88.8 billion Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill, the $37.6 billion Energy and Water bill, and the $3.6 billion Legislative Branch bill—before turning several hours later to the $659 billion Department of Defense measure. Lawmakers said they expect to work on the DOD bill through the morning of July 28 and perhaps longer in an all-out effort to get the package passed by the start of the five-week August recess.

Lawmakers planned to process six dozen amendments on the first three bills but were still awaiting the long list of changes that GOP leaders also will entertain on the defense portion of the package. In addition, they said they expect the rule governing the legislation will add $1.6 billion to help pay for the wall President Donald Trump wants built along the U.S.-Mexico border.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other leaders are pushing for passage of four bills with a nexus to national security as they work to both appeal to their constituencies and demonstrate they are trying to avert a crisis when current monies run out on Sept. 30. But lawmakers are still expected to have to rely on a new stopgap to prevent a funding lapse, because so far Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has brought none of the 12 annual bills to the floor.

“Let’s get those done and—sort of first things first—let’s come back and deal with the other eight in September,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Appropriations and Rules committees. “It’s my hope that’s what we will do, probably in packages. But we’re trying to move quickly.”

But Democrats decried the demise of “regular order” and the leadership’s decision to bring none of the 12 bills individually to the House floor this summer. Also criticized was the choice to front-load defense-related measures and leave behind the domestic spending bills filled with cuts.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the strategy is a far cry from what Ryan promised in the fall of 2015 when he said he would advance major legislation “one issue at a time” and wouldn’t “duck tough issues.” He particularly criticized Ryan’s decision to use a rule to insert the border wall money into the final package.

"[T]hat is ducking the issue,” Hoyer said. “It will be deemed passed. We won’t vote on it. We will vote for the rule or against the rule, and the wall and $1.6 billion will be deemed passed.”

Omnibus Abandoned

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) led the committee in what other Republicans called a “forced march” during the past three weeks to mark up and approve all 12 spending bills. But plans to combine them all in one omnibus were abandoned after a whip count showed insufficient support for the package.

Passage of the four-bill package will put lawmakers on record as supporting large increases in defense and veterans spending as they return to their districts for the long recess. It also could land in the win column for Trump, who asked for an increase for the Pentagon in his budget request.

In all, the $659 billion DOD bill includes $584.2 billion in discretionary spending subject to the Budget Control Act’s caps, a $68 billion increase over fiscal 2017. In addition, it has $73.9 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds.

Similarly, the $88.8 billion Milcon-VA bill carries a $6 billion increase, with $10 billion of the total considered defense spending subject to the BCA caps.

“This bill guarantees that we are prepared to meet any threat from anyone or anywhere,” Frelinghuysen said.

Republicans had less to say about the $1.6 billion in the works for the border wall, but lawmakers made it clear that the White House is demanding its inclusion. They said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney also is pressing for it to be attached to the continuing resolution to fund the government that is expected to be necessary in September.

Plan Said to Violate BCA

House Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the package lawmakers are prepared to spend two days debating has no chance of advancing in the Senate, where the DOD funding would likely be found to violate budget law. She urged lawmakers to start bipartisan talks aimed at winning another bipartisan budget agreement that will lift the BCA caps.

“The Republican approach to funding our government for FY ’18 all but guarantees a short-term, if not a full-year continuing resolution,” Lowey said. “Just like every year, Democratic votes will be needed to enact appropriations law. I hope we will soon start to work together to invest responsibly, in both Defense and nondefense priorities to grow the economy, create jobs, and secure the country.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also said the increased defense spending Republicans may claim credit for violates budget law and comes at a high cost to other programs. She also dismissed the border wall money as a “poison pill” that is “immoral, ineffective, and expensive.”

"[Trump] promised a wall that Mexico would pay for. He said it would cost $4 billion to $6 billion. Fact is it could cost as much as $30 to $40 billion,” Pelosi said.

Democrats also criticized the rule that permitted only two hours of general debate on the package and only 10 minutes of debate on substantive amendments. Another item in dispute was the decision of Ryan to remove from the defense bill a provision Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) offered in committee calling for a debate on a new authorization of military force in the Middle East.

Democrats’ opposition was demonstrated on the vote on the rule, which was approved on a party-line vote of 232-192. Joining 230 Republicans voting in favor were only two Democrats. In opposition were 189 Democrats and three Republicans.

Legislative Branch Bill

As the House began an evening session July 26, lawmakers began debate on the Legislative Branch bill, which would provide $3.6 billion for House operations. Among the controversial amendments pending were two to cut resources for the Congressional Budget Office, which recently came under attack for its scoring of Republican bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

One of the amendments developed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) would cut $25.4 million from the CBO’s budget. The other amendment by Perry, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and others would eliminate the CBO’s budget analysis division and transfer the duties to the office of the CBO director. The plan calls for CBO to instead compile budget scores from groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution.

Other amendments to the measure include those to increase money for the Government Accountability Office and eliminate the printed distribution of the Federal Register to members’ offices.

Later in the evening, the House was expected to turn to a list of 15 amendments to the Milcon-VA bill. After that, more than 40 amendments were pending on the Energy and Water bill. Many of those sought to restore funding for energy efficiency programs at the Energy Department.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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