Appropriators Begin Final Talks Over Spending Bills

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By Nancy Ognanovich and Jonathan Nicholson

Nov. 15 — Negotiations over this year’s annual spending bills are intensifying as House and Senate appropriators work to have the measures ready for party leaders by week’s end.

House and Senate Appropriations “cardinals” on Nov. 15 started “four corners” meetings with their Democratic counterparts aimed at working out spending and policy details of the 11 unfinished bills. “Four corners,” for each spending bill, refers to the two subcommittee chairmen and two subcommittee ranking members working on legislation over which their panels have jurisdiction.

Those four-corners sessions, which appropriators plan to finish by Nov. 17, then will set the stage for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to decide how to move the measures, whether in an omnibus or “minibuses,” lawmakers said.

“If the train leaves the station, we’ll be ready,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA after he met with other Senate and House appropriators to discuss the bill earlier in the day.

Action on the bills is necessary because only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills has been finished and signed into law by President Barack Obama so far. Government funds will lapse Dec. 9 if Congress doesn’t act in the lame-duck session to either pass the other bills or pass another continuing resolution.

Alexander said appropriators are opposed to the CR. He said conservatives want to put spending decisions off until next year.

“That’s lazy legislating,” said Alexander, whose Energy and Water bill easily passed the Senate last spring. “After we’ve done all this work, we should go ahead and finish the job.”

‘Clearing the Decks.’

McConnell’s office said the Republican leader, a senior appropriator, wants to finish the fiscal year 2017 spending bills in the current calendar year, a move that is seen as “clearing the decks” for the incoming Trump administration. But Ryan continues to take a noncommittal approach, telling reporters that different scenarios are being discussed.

“None of those decisions have been made yet,” Ryan said when asked about the fate of the bills.

But both Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) are pushing for lawmakers to either wrap up the bills via an omnibus or a series of “minibuses” to expedite action in December. The key, Alexander and others said, is to have the bills essentially done so that leaders can then assess next steps.

“There’s so little time that there will be several bills that will be paired together,” Alexander said. “Whenever they start pairing bills, we want to be one of them.”

The three days of meetings involving House and Senate subcommittee leaders began after aides to the two committees developed a reworked set of 302(b) allocations during the recess and began negotiating many differences in the House and Senate versions of the bills. The talks involve the distribution of $1.070 trillion in federal discretionary spending.

“We’re going with the four-corners meetings,” said Senate Appropriations, Interior and Environment Subcommittee ranking member Tom Udall (D-N.M.), adding that he will meet with Subcommittee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to “work through all the issues.”

“The rest of it is above my pay grade,” he said. “I’ll let Barbara [Mikulski (D-Md.)] and the leadership work on the rest.” Mikulski is ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

House Members Defend Plans

Members of the House Freedom Caucus, who earlier proposed to cut the annual spending total by $30 billion or more, continue to urge lawmakers to drop the bills and pass another CR into March. Their stance is being backed by the conservative FreedomWorks.

“There is no reason to negotiate with Democrats on this,” FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon said in a statement. “Republicans will return in the next Congress with their majorities intact, and a Republican president will soon to enter the White House.”

“Not only will Republicans have control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, Democrats are in disarray,” Brandon added, citing the forthcoming departures of Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

But House appropriators said holding the 2017 bills over until next year would be a disservice to the new president and Congress. As soon as February, the focus will be turning to the fiscal year 2018 budget and spending bills.

“I think it makes sense to essentially clear the table for the new administration,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA. “The last thing a new administration needs to do is deal with last year’s spending issues. So we’re working and we’ll be ready. We’re in very good shape.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Interior-Environment Subcommittee, acknowledged conservatives’ interest in a CR through March. But he said he senses that Republican leaders favor finishing full-year bills, and he indicated he favored that approach.

“It’s not certain that a CR would pass,” Simpson said. “Democrats could stop it from passing in the Senate. And would Obama sign it? I don’t know. They could put the pressure on us to come back and do the work.”

“Shutting down the airports over Christmas is not a good idea, and I don’t care who does it,” Simpson said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com; Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

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

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