Defense ‘Minibus’ Readied for House Floor; Committee Wraps Up Work

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By Nancy Ognanovich

House Republican leaders are fine-tuning strategy on a spending bill “minibus” that they plan to put to a vote by the August recess, which is expected to contain four appropriations measures and items from others—including money for President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The starting point for the package Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) plans to bring up the week of July 24 will be the massive $658 billion Department of Defense appropriations bill and the $88.8 billion Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill that were approved by the Appropriations Committee earlier this summer. Added to that will be the committee’s $37.56 billion Energy and Water bill—which directs more funds for nuclear weapons programs—as well as the much smaller $3.58 billion Legislative Branch bill that provides an increase for the U.S. Capitol Police.

Republicans said current plans don’t call for the $51.1 billion Homeland Security bill, approved in committee July 18, to be added to what McCarthy labeled the “national security appropriations legislative package.” But McCarthy announced via Twitter that a provision in that bill to provide $1.6 billion for Trump’s wall will take a ride on the minibus.

“Few things are more fundamental to a nation than a protected border,” McCarthy said. “Next week the House will vote to fully fund [Trump’s] wall request.”

GOP leaders are eager to show action on addressing federal spending before they begin their five-week break, because none of the 12 fiscal year 2018 bills have been brought to the floor and passed this year. When lawmakers return, there will be less than four weeks to go before current federal government funds expire.

But the package McCarthy announced leaves behind a total of eight bills, most of them funding domestic programs. As a result, McCarthy isn’t counting on Democrats to help pass the package and instead will have to rely on Republican votes on the floor.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said that so far, Republicans haven’t advanced any plan that has a realistic chance of being enacted into law and avoiding another fiscal crisis. The defense bill, with a more than $60 billion increase, would violate the Budget Control Act’s spending caps.

“It’s time for the majority to stop wasting time and work with Democrats on a more reasonable spending agreement so that we can keep government open and working for the American people in two short months,” Lowey said.

Omnibus on Shelf

McCarthy announced the four-bill package will be put to a vote after Republican leaders determined that an omnibus containing all 12 of the committee’s bills wouldn’t have sufficient votes to pass the House. The fallback plan was to just advance bills focused on military and security programs that are popular in the GOP conference.

Still, the scaled-back package is likely to include more than half of the total $1.132 trillion in discretionary monies covered by the 12 bills. With the $1.6 billion included for the wall, the package could provide $789.6 billion or more in funds.

The four appropriations bills destined for the package were quickly placed on the website of the House Rules Committee, with defense (H.R. 3219) the lead vehicle. However, aides said the language providing money for the border wall won’t be included in any of the four bills but will be added to the final package via a rule leaders are discussing. (Copies of the bills are available here.)

The package will be open to changes once it hits the floor, but the Rules Committee set a deadline of July 24 at 10 a.m. for amendments to be filed. The legislation is expected to be on the House floor possibly as early as July 26.

Despite the developments, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said he still is committed to advancing all 12 bills this year. Frelinghuysen went ahead July 19 with full committee markups on both the Labor, Health and Human Services and State Foreign Operations measures—the last of the 12 bills.

In contrast to the Department of Defense and Milcon-VA bills advancing in the package, those domestic spending bills carry deep cuts. The $156 billion Labor-HHS bill carries a $5 billion cut and the $47.4 billion State Foreign Operations bill represents a $10 billion reduction from current spending.

Labor-HHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) downplayed the $5 billion cut, saying it’s “barely 3 percent” of last year’s spending. He said the money the subcommittee gave up helped provide a needed $6 billion increase for Veterans Affairs programs covered by the Milcon-VA bill.

Cole also said the flurry of current activity in the House is only the beginning of the process. Cole earlier said a final resolution of FY 2018 spending isn’t likely until House and Senate leaders of both parties negotiate a new bipartisan budget agreement that allows increases in both defense and non-defense spending.

"[T]his is an initial allocation, the beginning of the congressional funding process,” Cole said. “I am always ready to negotiate with our friends in the Senate and on the other side of the aisle. I will be looking for opportunities to enhance our priorities, plug holes, and work together across the aisle and the Rotunda as we continue down the path of [FY] 2018. Frankly, it is my belief that at the end of the legislative process we will have a product that will win the majority of both Democrats and Republicans, as was the case with the FY ’16 and FY ’17 bills.”

Border Wall for White House

Lawmakers said they are under pressure to give Trump the first installment of the funds for the wall that he originally said would be paid for by Mexico. While Democrats continue to dismiss the proposal as a “boondoggle,” House Republicans are keeping their own reservations under wraps. The $1.6 billion reflects Trump’s full request for 2018.

“Next week the House will vote to build the wall,” McCarthy said in another tweet.

Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman John Carter (R-Texas) said the money won’t be used to start building a large wall from California to Texas. He said it will be used to reinforce current structures and build more secure fencing in certain areas. He said the bill envisions using funds to replicate the success of physical barriers already in place in Arizona, California, and Texas.

“They are not targeted at areas, like Texas’s Big Bend National Park and Arizona’s forbidding desert, where Mother Nature has secured the border in ways that man need not enhance,” Carter said.

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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