Lawmakers Negotiating ’17 Bills While Positioning for ’18 Battles

By Nancy Ognanovich

House and Senate appropriators will be under siege on two fronts the week of March 20 as they try to negotiate deals to wrap up the fiscal year 2017 spending bills while beginning work on next year’s measures.

With only about 20 work days remaining until federal funds are due to expire, House lawmakers said they are continuing talks with their Senate counterparts aimed at finalizing all 11 unfinished bills for the government’s fiscal year that began last October.

But at the same time, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) are beginning hearings on the FY 2018 budget blueprint that President Donald Trump sent to Capitol Hill on March 16.

Appropriators’ work on both years is increasingly mixed, as Trump also requested an extra $33 billion in 2017 supplemental funds when he sent his budget to Congress. The supplemental, which primarily calls for a boost in Defense spending but also seeks money to start building a border wall, could get tacked onto an omnibus to close out 2017 works.

Pressure is mounting on lawmakers as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have yet to announce how they plan to move the omnibus through both chambers before federal funds expire April 28. The leaders agreed last December to shelve the 2017 bills in order to give Trump more say in federal spending decisions, but the stopgap covering the government is set to expire less than a week after lawmakers return from a two-week spring recess.

“We’re just trying to wrap up all our bills by the end of the month and then, hopefully, be able to pass some sort of domestic omnibus in April,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee at Appropriations. “There may be an effort on the Senate side to attach things to the Defense bill and send it back to us.”

Trump Budget Roils Waters

Cole denied that Trump’s budget blueprint—focused on cutting discretionary funds under appropriators’ control—would hamper appropriators’ ability to get 2017 wrapped up before government money runs out April 28.

Trump called for $18 billion in cuts to the 2017 spending bills and $54 billion in reductions in 2018—all on the domestic side of the ledger. The cuts proposed next year range from 13 percent at Transportation to 30 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cole said appropriators will ignore the $18 billion in cuts as they negotiate the omnibus and a supplemental.

“I don’t think it makes it any more difficult at all,” Cole said when asked how the controversial budget will affect appropriators’ work. “The president’s budget really is about ’18, and we’re told to just finish up the this year’s bills.”

The annual Defense bill (H.R. 1301) already was negotiated by House and Senate appropriators and passed earlier this month in the House, where it was treated as a conference agreement. Now lawmakers are trying to close out the 10 other bills and avoid a third continuing resolution.

Former committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who now chairs the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, also said the talks continue with the Senate to resolve all the remaining measures.

“Right now the subcommittees are trying to work out differences with the Senate counterparts to try to perfect the ’17 bills, hopefully to attach to our Defense bill and sent it back over. So that’s our main focus,” Rogers said.

Rogers also strongly suggested negotiators won’t reopen the bills to try to force $18 billion in cuts.

“They’re almost done,” Rogers said when asked about Trump’s proposal.

Cochran Appeals to Budget Panel

But the challenges looming in 2018 to preserve current federal funding aren’t lost on appropriators, who already are laying out their arguments over why fiscal conservatives should look to the mandatory side of the budget to find savings.

The Trump budget blueprint didn’t include recommendations on mandatory spending and tax or provide economic projections. The White House said those will come in a more complete budget document to be sent in May.

In a letter sent to the Senate Budget Committee, Cochran said the appropriations panels already have done their part to reduce debt. While discretionary spending has been cut by over $800 billion below the Congressional Budget Office’s FY 2011 baseline estimates, mandatory spending has been cut by only $125 billion since laws passed in 2011, he said.

The Appropriations Committee chairman said in the letter, sent a week before Trump’s budget landed on Capitol Hill, that he doesn’t believe programs funded with discretionary monies can absorb more cuts without services being significantly compromised.

"[I]t will be very challenging at existing cap levels for the Appropriations Committee to report 12 appropriations bills that support congressional priorities and public needs,” Cochran said. “Any additional reductions in budget caps, whether direct or indirect, will exacerbate that challenge.”

Cochran plans to start next year’s budget process with a March 22 hearing on Trump’s request to increase Defense spending by $54 billion. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also scheduled to testify at the Defense Subcommittee that Cochran chairs.

Meanwhile, the House committee plans to start the process with a March 21 hearing at the Labor-HHS Subcommittee on the budget request for the National Institutes of Health. Trump proposed to cut the NIH $30.3 billion budget by almost $6 billion, or 19 percent.

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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