June 3 — Republican leaders in both houses of Congress are scrambling to sell a revised strategy for moving more of this year's spending bills before they leave town in mid-July for an extended break.
With only 20 work days left, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is set to huddle with his caucus behind closed doors to discuss how to revive the appropriations process after leadership saw one of the most popular of the bills fail on the eve of the Memorial Day recess. Ryan is expected to lay out a strategy as soon as June 7 calling for bills to now move to the floor under structured rules that sharply limit amendments.
Ryan hinted at resorting to restrictions on amendments shortly after the House rejected the $37.4 billion Energy and Water bill (H.R. 5055) and lawmakers scattered for recess. The measure attracted little more than 100 votes amid a dispute over whether the measure would carry language Democrats wanted to ensure federal contractors don't discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
In advance of talks with other Republicans, Ryan has scheduled action only on the $3.48 billion Legislative Branch spending bill (H.R. 5325), the smallest and least controversial of the 12 bills. The House will consider that measure while Energy and Water stays on the shelf and Ryan strategizes on how to bring the $575 billion Defense appropriations bill to the floor later this month, aides said.
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is working to persuade lawmakers to clear the related Defense authorization bill by the week of June 13 in order to set the stage for the Senate to move almost immediately to its own version of the Pentagon spending bill. But McConnell's strategy remains threatened by Democratic opposition to Republican plans to boost Defense totals above last fall's bipartisan budget talks. The matter, Republican Senate aides said, could come to a head soon after lawmakers return to work June 6.
Both leaders are working with a compressed work schedule as they try to have as many of the 12 bills done as possible before they leave July 15 for a seven-week recess. After they return they will have little more than three weeks to pass some type of plan to fund the government when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
The scorecard for appropriations bills being finished and sent to President Barack Obama's desk is 0-12. The House has passed only one bill—Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (H.R. 4974)—while Energy and Water was rejected on a 112-305 vote. In the Senate, McConnell used three weeks to advance its version of Energy and Water (H.R. 2028) and then quickly resorted to bundling the Milcon-VA and Transportation, Housing, and Urban Affairs bills (H.R. 2577) to expedite action. While Defense (S. 3000) may move separately, McConnell plans to combine other bills to get them across the Senate floor faster.
Ryan is not ready to bundle, but instead said before the break he wants to make the process more “workable.”
Aides said they expect Ryan will meet with the caucus soon after lawmakers return and lay out his plan to now use structured rules limiting amendments to those preapproved by leadership. Then, they said, they will watch for the Rules Committee to execute the plan, beginning with the Legislative Branch bill.
But a structured rule, they said, is particularly critical if Ryan wants to try to move soon to the sweeping Defense appropriations bill (H.R. 5293). The recent controversy arose after Republicans put language in the related Defense authorization bill to block implementation of Obama's executive order banning LGBT discrimination by federal contractors and Democrats then looked—and found—opportunities via the appropriations process to upend it (See previous story, 05/27/16).
That strategy could cost the bills Democratic support, which has seen as critical as Republican leaders haven't been able to count on conservatives' votes. House aides said a plan that sharply limits amendments also will close out many Republican proposals and, as a result, could erode support further on that side of the aisle.
“[T]he Republican caucus is going to have to have all of their people in line,” one aide said. “I don’t know, they may not have. That’s probably the key question when the caucus convenes.”
Senate aides said McConnell faces some of the same issues if he intends to remain focused on quickly passing appropriations bills this summer. His first job, one said, is to get lawmakers to back away from the list of 300 amendments pending on the Defense authorization bill and dispose of the legislation quickly.
But McConnell can't avoid a fight over Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain's (R-Ariz.) amendment to add $18 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds in violation of the budget deal (See previous story, 05/26/16). A senior Republican aide said he isn't aware that McCain and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have worked out any deal to address Democrats' concerns that OCO money may be used to boost the Pentagon's share of funds while domestic programs aren't similarly increased.
“By the middle of the week that could be fully engaged,” the aide said.
The aide said McConnell faces many challenges, including potential battles over other “poison pill riders.” Also difficult is being able to find the right bills to “marry up” together, pass, and set up for a conference with the House, he said.
But both sides face another large challenge, the aide added: “Time. And the ability of both sides to pass bills given the finite number of days.”
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