Lawmakers Ramp Up Work on Omnibus, Ignoring Trump Calls for Cuts

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By Nancy Ognanovich

House and Senate appropriators intensified their efforts to wrap up fiscal year 2017 spending bills, ignoring Trump administration calls to sharply cut domestic program funding.

With only about 10 work days left before a current government stopgap measure runs out, lawmakers said they are completing as many bills as possible so they will be ready to be rolled into an omnibus led by the Department of Defense measure.

In the process, lawmakers of both parties signaled opposition to Trump’s proposals to deeply reduce funding for non-defense programs, both in the 2017 process and the upcoming work on the FY 2018 bills.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price March 29 that the House Appropriations Committee is unlikely to go along with many of the roughly $18 billion in cuts Trump wants reflected in the omnibus or the $54 billion in reductions proposed for 2018.

Rather than cuts, Cole told Price “you’ll see there will be another substantial increase” for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the upcoming package.

"[T]his committee, and certainly me personally, will be very hesitant about looking at cuts of the nature we’re talking about,” Cole, chairman of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, told Price at one of the first hearings this year on the Trump budget.

Lawmakers are trying to nail down the final details of the 10 bills that will be attached to Defense (H.R. 1301) before they leave for a two-week recess April 7. When they return from the break there will be less than five days before the continuing resolution that funds the federal government expires at midnight on April 28.

Democrats were harsher in their comments, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) saying Trump budget plans, which include $15 billion cuts to HHS, are “cynical, vindictive, and will cause real harm.”

CR Expires at 100-Day Mark

To expedite their work on the omnibus, appropriators said they will ignore the list of cuts the White House Office of Management and Budget recently sent to Capitol Hill. Included in that was a $1.2 billion cut to NIH funding—on top of almost a $6 billion cut in the so-called skinny budget blueprint Trump proposed for NIH next year.

Besides putting aside those cuts, appropriators also said they decided to delay work on the 2017 supplemental spending plan that Trump wants to increase spending on Defense and build a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. That $30 billion supplemental, they said, won’t be taken up until later in the spring.

The immediate goal, lawmakers said, is to meet the April 28 deadline and avoid any crises when the current CR lapses.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said April 28 coincides with the 100-day mark for Trump’s administration, which continues to look for a significant legislative victory.

“So I hope we don’t have a government shutdown on that day,” Pocan told Price.

Cole expressed support for the administration’s goal to increase Defense spending but said appropriators won’t be supporting the 18 percent cut to HHS that Trump proposed and reductions to biomedical research.

“It’s literally the first line of defense,” Cole said of biomedical programs. “I’d rather fight Ebola in West Africa than in West Dallas.”

For his part, Price declined to discuss specifics about the Trump cuts, including those proposed for biomedical research. OMB has directed Cabinet officials to avoid discussing details of the administration’s 2018 budget, which won’t be officially sent to Capitol Hill until May.

“I support the priorities of the budget,” Price said when asked about the NIH cut.

State Department Cuts Criticized

Across Capitol Hill, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee also built the case for “soft power” via research programs amid Trump budgets favoring “hard power” increases.

Defense Subcommittee ranking member Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) argued in favor of preserving the 32 percent increase the committee made in defense health programs over the past four years.

“The funding Congress adds each year to the Defense bill includes support for a range of medical research, from modern prosthetics to more effective treatments for traumatic brain injury,” Durbin said at a March 29 hearing where Pentagon officials said the NIH and DOD collaborate on research projects.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the latest cuts OMB sent March 24 represent a threat to wrapping up 2017 work soon.

“The past month or two our staffs have been working daily with the House counterparts to finalize our FY ’17 bill,” Leahy said at a March 29 hearing of the State-Foreign Relations Subcommittee. “We’ve got just about everything worked out, [then] Friday we learned the White House may be proposing $2.8 billion cuts to the [State-Foreign Operations] allocation.

“Those cuts are arbitrary and indefensible,” he said. “People who are suggesting them have no idea what these programs do, or what the cuts mean for our ability to be engaged as a world superpower.”

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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