Lawmakers Finalizing Omnibus to Avoid Stopgap: McConnell

By Nancy Ognanovich

House and Senate appropriators are intensifying efforts to finalize the fiscal year 2017 bills in order for Congress to sign off on an omnibus before current government funding runs out April 28, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

With Republicans’ repeal of the Affordable Care Act shelved, McConnell said the GOP now is working on a bipartisan basis to close out 2017 work and avoid any chance of a government funding crisis when a current continuing resolution expires.

“There’s no desire for a CR,” McConnell told reporters after a March 28 meeting of Republicans to discuss the Senate’s reworked agenda after House Republicans decided to forego a vote on the ACA. The goal, he said, is to finish the essential spending bills before the deadline, now only a month away.

Democrats and Republicans “are working together on this and we fully anticipate getting an outcome prior to the end of April,” McConnell said. “We have to.”

While the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill was enacted last fall, the 11 other bills for the fiscal year that began in October were held back in order to give President Donald Trump more say over spending decisions. However, appropriators now are anxious to finish the bills in order to avoid yet another CR and speculation of a new government shutdown.

But Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a senior appropriator, said in order to expedite work and make the deadline, lawmakers may have to put on hold the FY 2017 supplemental that Trump also wants Congress to pass this spring.

Trump is seeking an extra $30 billion for the Defense Department and another $3 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But Blunt said that the supplemental may have to move separately. Trump has proposed to pay for the wall with controversial cuts to other programs, including National Institutes of Health funding.

“I think the best plan here and the most likely to work is you take the FY ’17 Defense bill and you put the FY ’17 ‘everything else’ on top of that,” Blunt told reporters. “And then the supplemental is still an issue to be dealt with differently.”

Cochran: No ‘Shutdown.’

McConnell made his comments as lawmakers continued to regroup from the demise of the ACA repeal efforts and geared up for a battle with Democrats over the upcoming confirmation vote of Neil Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. With much in flux, lawmakers said McConnell has no desire to risk a crisis next month.

“We’re not going to have a shutdown,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) told reporters.

Cochran also said there is no appetite for another CR, which would be the third in a row and basically reflect “government on autopilot.”

“We don’t need that either,” Cochran said. “We should reconcile our differences.”

Both Cochran and Blunt, who is chairman of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, said talks are going well between Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate and House appropriations panels. While the annual Defense bill is settled, the other 10 bills are close to being resolved, Blunt said.

“I think almost everybody is to that point,” Blunt told reporters. “I feel good about where we are.”

But trying to digest Trump’s supplemental—including its controversial plan to use federal monies on the border wall—could complicate the process and make it harder to meet the April 28 deadline, Blunt said.

“My guess is that comes together better without that supp[lement],” Blunt said.

OMB Forwards Details of Cuts

Democrats have signaled support for providing more money for Defense in 2017 but are opposed to Trump’s request for federal money to pay for the border wall, which Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called “unneeded, ineffective [and] absurdly expensive.”

Trump said in releasing the “skinny” budget targeting discretionary spending in 2017 that he wanted to cut other domestic programs by some $19 billion in the short term and another $50 billion in FY 2018. The budget called for cutting total annual funding at federal agencies by as much as 30 percent.

However, the details of those cuts for 2017 weren’t sent to appropriators until March 23, just as lawmakers were trying to close out their work. Cochran signaled they were likely to ignore them.

The White House Office of Management and Budget proposed $17.935 billion in cuts throughout the domestic side of the ledger, including a reduction of $7.256 billion in the Labor-HHS bill, $2.879 billion in the State-Foreign Operations bill and $2.696 billion in the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development bill.

Schumer said the cuts—which target programs such as the popular Community Development Block Grant and transportation grants—aren’t likely to be supported by either Republicans or Democrats.

“The president wants to slow down cancer research and make the middle-class taxpayer shoulder the cost of a wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for. He wants to cut funding for roads and bridges, to build a wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for. The proposed cuts the administration sent up last night will not receive the support of very many people,” Schumer said.

Across the Capitol, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he also doubts Republicans will support those cuts and said the only way to get 2017 wrapped up is for appropriators to be able to follow the bipartisan budget deal as it did with the Defense bill (H.R. 1301) that passed the House a few weeks ago.

Minus the two-week spring recess both sides are taking, Congress actually has only 11 work days left to meet the deadline, he said.

“If you notice, the Defense bill had an overwhelming vote,” Hoyer said. “Why did it have an overwhelming vote? Because it kept the deal. The art of the deal is keeping the deal. The art of the deal is having the other side trust you with your word. And that’s what ought to be done.”

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