House and Senate Republican leaders return to work Feb. 27 facing an increasingly urgent race against time to come up with a plan to fund the government before current federal monies lapse.
Plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act or overhaul the tax code have no set deadlines, but GOP leaders now have only 60 days to muscle through a spending package and avoid a fiscal crisis only weeks into President Donald Trump’s term.
The already difficult challenge of preventing the government from running out of funds is being complicated by Trump’s plans to send a multibillion-dollar request for extra defense and border security money to Capitol Hill in March. Ultimately, lawmakersare expected to try to attach those funds to the must-pass spending package.
The federal government’s money runs out April 28 under a stopgap bill Congress passed last December. If lawmakers can’t pass a package of bills to close out fiscal year 2017 work, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may be forced to push through yet another continuing resolution to prevent a shutdown. The decisions affect the way in which more than $1 trillion in discretionary funds are allocated this year.
House and Senate appropriators are struggling to steal back the momentum for their bills after watching Republican leaders’ plans run off course in recent weeks. With work on Trump’s Cabinet picks leading the agenda, appropriators said they are fighting calls to develop a third in a series of CRs for 2017.
“The question is whether you do an omnibus or a series of minibuses and that may well depend on how quickly you can close up your negotiations on individual bills,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the House GOP leadership and Appropriations Committee. “Then there’s the concern about the Senate, too, it’s not just us. We can get our bills done in no time at all, but whether they can get them brought up over there, given the current atmosphere and Democrats’ unwillingness to cooperate on anything, I don’t know. I don’t think they know.”
Appropriators have had 11 spending vehicles idling in neutral since December, when Ryan and McConnell decided to back away from plans to wrap up 2017 spending and instead pass a new CR to give the new administration more say over federal spending decisions. But in the intervening weeks, little work has been done to develop a strategy for moving the measures before the deadline, lawmakers said.
Although two months remain before monies run out April 28, lawmakers actually have less than 40 work days to resolve the matter due in part to the two-week spring recess both sides plan to take.Cole told Bloomberg BNA in an interview that Republican leaders told House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) on the eve of the Presidents Day recess to jump-start talks in anticipation of floor action beginning in March.
“We’ve been told to get to work negotiating with the Senate on the ’17 bills,” Cole said. “I think they decided they need to move.”
Cole said House and Senate appropriators already had some of the measures completely finished before Ryan and McConnell told them to put the brakes on the process. “Some of them were 75 percent done,” he said.
Republican leaders now are talking about bringing up the massive Department of Defense spending bill, which is the vehicle for more than $500 billion, early on, Cole said. The supplemental spending that Republicans and the White House want for the Pentagon may be a part of that bill, he said.
“The question then is whether you are going to do something on Homeland [Security] where the border wall might be funded,” Cole said. “I’m pretty sure that’s going to move. The real question is, do the rest of the bills move or do you just CR everything other than Defense and Homeland. I don’t think we’ll do that. That isn’t the aim.”
Ryan subsequently joined many other Republicans in Texas during the recess to examine border security operations in the Rio Grande Valley. The speaker said afterwards that law enforcement on the border requires more tools and support but didn’t offer specifics on how he planned to fund the building of the wall, which he earlier estimated to cost between $12 billion and $15 billion. Trump himself may reveal plans for the wall in his Feb. 28 joint address to Congress.
The CR scenario that Cole addressed would affect the annual Labor, Health and Human Services bill that Cole oversees and other measures that fund domestic programs. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cole’s Senate counterpart, said he is anxious to finalize a bill mostly worked out between them last year and then be ready for work on the FY 2018 measures.
“It’s too early to decide how much we’re going to fight on this,” said Blunt, chairman of the Labor HHS Subcommittee. “I’d love to see us get as much of our work from last year done as our baseline for next year as we can, and I think that’s relatively easy to do if enough people want to do it.”
But other Senate “cardinals” expressed more worry that their work is in danger of running off track.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee, said he and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) could wrap up their work within two weeks and said that is the same scenario at other subcommittees. But others don’t share appropriators’ commitment to get the bills done, he said.
“What we’re fighting is another CR,” Alexander told Bloomberg BNA.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, agreed, saying that appropriators sense their chance could be slipping away as the Senate spends days debating House-passed Congressional Review Act bills and Trump Cabinet nominees.
But Moran also said he believes the nominees found most objectionable to Democrats have been confirmed and now there may still be a chance to move the spending bills before plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act or overhaul the tax code move ahead.
“I assume there’s a lot less interest now in dragging any or all of the remaining nominees out,” Moran told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “In the meantime, it’s important not to let the spending bills go by the wayside as a result of all the other things we want to do.”
But Moran and other lawmakers also suggested the bills are being threatened by the slow pace of decision-making at the White House, where new Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney just reported for duty after being confirmed by the Senate.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told Pentagon officials in a late January memorandum that they needed to submit their supplemental requests to OMB by March 1 and Moran said he and other lawmakers have heard little about the funds that will be requested. He said his impression is that the extra defense money Trump seeks will be through the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to the overall discretionary spending cap.
The annual Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill is the only one of the regular 12 measures to be enacted this year, serving as the lead vehicle for the latest CR. Moran said he expects the White House to seek extra Milcon money in the supplemental but can’t get information about the request.
“We’ve been having conversations with Defense Department officials and I don’t think there’s a lot of clarity yet as to what that supplemental is going to look like,” Moran said.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told Bloomberg BNA that the new administration’s buy-in is critical to ultimately being able to advance the bills.
“But I think we’re all just sitting around waiting to see what the administration’s input is,” said Boozman, chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over border enforcement.
Contributing to the uncertainty about next steps is the fact that Mulvaney, a founder of the House Freedom Caucus, repeatedly opposed appropriators’ bills in the past and even was an advocate of a government shutdown to force spending cuts. But appropriators said that can be forgiven—as long as, in the end, Mulvaney doesn’t try to put up a roadblock for the defense increases they and Pentagon officials want.
“He will be 100 percent for an increase in Defense, consistent with what the president said,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked about Mulvaney’s earlier stance on spending.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) told Bloomberg BNA that he had dropped his opposition to Mulvaney’s confirmation after he was assured that the new White House budget chief won’t try to block the military increases.
“I had a good visit with him and he understands my concerns and I think you’ll see that reflected in the work product of OMB,” said Cochran, who is also chairman of the Defense Subcommittee.
Democrats said they already know Republicans are ready to blame them if the effort stalls or, even worse, slams into a wall as the deadline approaches. But the minority in both chambers said they won’t sign off on a plan calling for big increases for security-related programs, if the domestic side of the ledger is slated for cuts.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations panels, said Democrats will continue to insist that the package reflect the two-year bipartisan budget deal that then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) negotiated with the Obama administration to establish new caps for defense and non-defense spending.
“They’re the ones who made the agreement on defense and non-defense funding,” Leahy told Bloomberg BNA. “I would hope they would keep their word. Wouldn’t it be terrible if they didn’t?”
While Republican leaders’ next moves aren’t clear, Cole said ultimately it will be very obvious that appropriators should have been allowed to wrap up their 2017 work last December.
“We’re going to reach the point where I’m going to be tempted to say, `I told you so’ and you’re going to be tempted to say, `We’re sorry, we should have done it that way,’ ” Cole said. “The administration is going to have to be part of decisions it should never have had to make.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com
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