Congressional Leaders Lay Groundwork for Fall Spending Talks

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By Nancy Ognanovich

June 10 — Republican House and Senate leaders plan action on key appropriations bills the week of June 13 to put down markers and lay the groundwork for negotiations over federal government spending next fall.

Facing a July 15 deadline to leave town, Republicans plan to use the remaining work days to move the spending bills with the best chances to secure bipartisan support, beginning with the $575 billion Department of Defense bill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he is planning for the DOD bill to land on the floor mid-week and be finished by late June 16. The measure is expected to be brought up under a structured rule to weed out controversial amendments, but McCarthy said lawmakers still will be able to offer many changes.

Action on the DOD bill before lawmakers leave for a seven-week recess also remains a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But, after a fight over increased Pentagon funding threatened work on the related Defense authorization bill, McConnell switched gears and announced he plans instead to take up the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. That bill is seen as likely to also become the vehicle for the annual agriculture spending bill under McConnell's plan to “bundle” legislation to expedite floor action.

None of the measures are expected to be finalized and sent to President Barack Obama's desk before the fall. Instead, the one bill seen as having a chance to be finalized this month is a supplemental bill Obama wants to address the Zika virus. Negotiations on Zika funds, which were attached to a Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA) bill, will begin shortly, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said.

Congress calendar
July 15 Deadline

Both leaders are working with a short calendar to get the 12 fiscal year 2017 bills across the floors as part of their pledge to return to “regular order.” House Republicans recently backed a plan to bring the defense bill (H.R. 5293) and others to the floor under structured rules that limit amendments. The latter was developed after a dispute over discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals led to the defeat of the Energy and Water bill (H.R. 5055) (See previous story, 06/09/16).

In addition to the Milcon-VA (H.R. 4974), the House now has passed the Legislative Branch bill (H.R. 5325) to fund House operations. The June 10 debate on the $3.5 billion bill—usually the least controversial of the 12—revealed growing partisanship in the appropriations process and suggested that leaders will face many hurdles to pass more contentious bills.

The bill passed on a party line vote of 233-175. Some 223 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted in favor, while 161 Democrats and 14 Republicans opposed the bill.

The rule leaders developed for the legislative branch bill excluded many controversial amendments Republicans wanted, such as those permitting lawmakers to carry guns in the Capitol complex. Democrats remained angry that Republicans blocked them from removing provisions directing the Library of Congress to continue using the term “illegal alien” as a header for research purposes. The library wants to adopt “unauthorized immigration” instead (see related story in this issue).

The huge defense bill potentially presents many more controversies, including addressing the way LGBT employees of federal contractors are treated. With only eight working days left before the House leaves for a 10-day July 4 recess, Rogers said leaders will use a structured rule to eliminate the same type of threats that sunk energy and water.

McCarthy insisted the process will be “very fair.”

“We expect a large number of amendments to be considered on this bill,” McCarthy told Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on the floor.

Approp status
‘Grinding Halt' Feared

Across the Capitol, McConnell overcame opposition from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and convinced lawmakers to invoke cloture and cut off debate on the defense authorization bill (S. 2943) early June 10. McConnell set up a final vote on that bill for June 14.

McConnell abandoned his plans to move quickly to the Senate version of the DOD appropriations bill (S. 3000). In addition to Democrats, conservatives Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) still are looking for opportunities to offer a host of defense-related amendments that could delay the measure. They opposed McConnell's cloture motion.

McConnell said he will have the Senate also vote June 14 on a motion to move on to the popular Commerce-Justice-Science bill (S. 2837).

Democrats dropped their own threat to bring the appropriations process to a “grinding halt” when senators beat back efforts to boost defense spending in violation of last fall's budget deal (See previous story, 06/10/16). But the process remains vulnerable to upset.

“I am also concerned about the so-called robust amendment process we were supposed to have under the new Senate leadership,” Reid 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