House Panel Strategizing on 2017 Spending Bills: Frelinghuysen

By Nancy Ognanovich

House Republicans are beginning to develop strategy for wrapping up the fiscal year 2017 spending bills with an aim to protect funding for both defense and non-defense discretionary programs, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said.

While there is pressure to provide more money for defense programs, Frelinghuysen said on the eve of a House-Senate Republican retreat in Philadelphia that he also is trying to ensure that the 11 spending bills that Congress has to finish this April provide enough funds for domestic priorities.

“I think we need more defense spending, but I am also mindful that a lot of the other subcommittees are concerned about their allocations and their priorities,” Frelinghuysen told Bloomberg BNA after the committee met to organize and adopt rules for the 115th Congress. “I don’t want to shortchange anybody.”

Frelinghuysen is taking the helm of the panel as it faces the dual task of finishing the 11 bills by April 28 and beginning work on 12 new bills for fiscal year 2018. Funding for the federal government will lapse if Congress can’t get the measures through both chambers and signed into law by President Donald Trump by that date.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, said talks are intensifying both at the committee level and in the House Republican Conference on the levels of the final bills. Cole said programs under his panel’s jurisdiction might be spared cuts in the 2017 bills but said he still expects defense to be the top priority for Republicans as it works with the White House to set funding levels.

He also told reporters he expects there to be a separate supplemental spending bill this spring that could provide money to deal with Trump’s initiatives for enhanced security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I would expect a supplemental both for Defense and Homeland [Security], probably relating to border security,” Cole said.

Cuts to Domestic Spending?

The committee last year passed one bill—the measure for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA)—that became a vehicle for the first continuing resolution that funded the government during the campaign season. The other 11 bills were finished and were going to be wrapped into an omnibus spending bill to move in December’s lame-duck session.

But that plan was scrapped when the Trump transition team asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to shelve the bills and instead pass another CR into April to allow the new president more say in setting spending priorities for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Frelinghuysen, who just gained the committee gavel when former Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) was forced to step down from the post by term limit rules, said talks about reworking the bills already are underway.

“It’s going to be a busy spring. We have a lot on our schedule,” Frelinghuysen told committee members, saying they must complete 11 remaining FY 2017 bills by the end of April while also completing regular FY 2018 work, such as holding necessary oversight hearings, before drafting and bringing these bills to the floor.

“It’s going to take a lot of aggressive scheduling and time management, but I’m optimistic that we can come together as a committee to find common ground on these goals,” he said.

As the former chairman of the Defense Subcommittee, Frelinghuysen acknowledged pressure in Republican ranks to increase Pentagon spending above what is allowed by the framework of the two-year bipartisan budget agreement negotiated by former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Obama administration. Defense spending currently is about half of the $1.070 trillion in annual discretionary funds under the control of the committee.

But he also acknowledged the concerns of Cole, whose Labor-HHS bill is often a target of fiscal conservatives. The $161.6 billion bill the committee wrote last year already represented a cut of $569 million. Other spending bills covering environment programs and financial regulatory agencies also have been slated for cuts in previous bills.

“I really honor his feelings,” Frelinghuysen said of Cole’s effort to protect the Labor-HHS bill from more cuts. “We all have a job to do, and he probably has one of the largest and most important jurisdictions.”

Deep cuts in that bill or others Democrats favor would cost the support of Democrats in both the House and Senate. Committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) signaled she doesn’t believe Republican leaders will want to risk a stalemate that then could lead to another government funding lapse.

“We’re going to operate by the current law, and the current law controls the balance between domestic nondefense [spending] and defense,” Lowey told Bloomberg BNA.

Defense, Then Omnibus

Cole, a member of the House Republican leadership team, said talks about next steps have occurred both at the committee level and among leaders. But he said he hasn’t seen any numbers yet that would indicate how different programs will fare.

But Cole described a strategy for moving the spending legislation that reflects a traditional GOP strategy to prioritize security-related bills such as Milcon-VA, Defense and Homeland Security first and deal with domestic spending bills later. He said Defense will likely move first and move separately.

“It’s been described we will move ahead pretty quickly with a Defense bill and then hopefully come back and finish up during the tenure of the CR and other domestic bills—probably in a single package,” Cole said.

Frelinghuysen, who chaired the Defense Subcommittee in the previous Congress, declined to say how the measures will move or if Defense will emerge as “first among equals.”

“Obviously Defense is a huge priority having come off of that assignment, but my pledge to the leadership is to see if we can do all of our 11 bills and wrap them up,” Frelinghuysen said. “What might make up the package, I think, will remain to be seen as we get closer.”

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