Appropriations, Biomedical Bill Top Lame-Duck Agenda: McConnell

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By Nancy Ognanovich

Sept. 29 — Senate Republicans plan to use the lame-duck session to wrap up work on the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills and complete action on a popular biomedical research bill, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

Finishing the spending bills and passing the 21st Century Cures Act will consume much of lawmakers' time after they return Nov. 15, McConnell said as lawmakers headed back to the campaign trail. Other items may be considered, such as energy tax extenders, that didn't see action last year, he said.

But McConnell told reporters he still doesn’t believe there will be sufficient support for taking up the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in the post-election session. While he didn't express opposition to the pact, he labeled it “politically toxic” and not likely to pass in the lame duck.

McConnell spoke Sept. 29, a day after the chamber passed a 10-week government spending bill, as only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills had been cleared and sent to President Barack Obama. McConnell said the Senate only has three weeks in December to ensure continued spending and take up a handful of other matters.

McConnell also said he remains determined not to take up the nomination of Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court in the time that remains.

“The next president will be filling that vacancy,” McConnell said.

Spending Bills

The spending bills are the only real must-do items in the lame duck, in order to ensure funding for the government. McConnell said he wants to do full bills rather than resort to another continuing resolution similar to the CR (H.R. 5325) that was cleared Sept. 28 and signed by Obama the next day.

The lead vehicle for that CR running to Dec. 9 was the annual Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill, the only bill that so far went to conference. McConnell declined to back appropriators' calls for rolling all the others in an omnibus. Instead, he echoed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in saying he favors for now a strategy of combining spending bills into “minibus” vehicles (see related story in this issue).

“We'll just see what we can move,” McConnell said.

Earlier, Senate aides suggested that a package of tax items could move in a lame duck. But McConnell kept his comments on that scenario to a minimum, only saying that action is possible on the long-stalled energy tax extenders, a top priority for Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“We're committed to taking a look at that before the end of the year,” McConnell said.

21st Century Cures Act

Less urgent but popular is the 21st Century Cures Act, a sweeping biomedical research funding proposal that McConnell said is supported by Obama and leaders in both parties. The House passed its version of the bill in 2015 but the Senate hasn't yet taken up related legislation approved by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

“The president is interested in it, the vice president is interested in it, and I'm interested in it,” McConnell said of the Cures Act.

But a move to bring up the Pacific trade pact would be futile, McConnell said. He noted that both Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton oppose it, and added, “it would be defeated, anyway.”

Similarly, he said a bipartisan plan to overhaul criminal sentencing rules won't see action in this session.

“It's very divisive in my conference,” McConnell said.

McConnell's remarks indicate he's waiting for a new president to tackle trade policy.

“We need to work our way back into the trade business,” he said.

Other priorities in the new year will be a tax code overhaul and a major shift in eligibility requirements for entitlement programs, he said.

50-50 Senate?

With Election Day nearing and many Senate races still considered toss-ups, McConnell declined to predict that Republicans will hold their majority. But he indicated how the Senate will organize if Republicans and Democrats each control 50 seats.

McConnell said the Senate will likely follow the model negotiated by former Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) when there was a 50-50 split 16 years ago. In that case, the party of the vice president—who casts a tie-breaking vote—would control the chamber, he said.

“We answered the question of how the Senate would be organized,” McConnell 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

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