Senate Spending Bills on Hold as Budget, Tax Issues on Tap

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By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate appropriators decided to again delay moving the last batch of fiscal 2018 spending bills, pushing markups of up to four measures into October.

The annual spending bills for Defense, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment, and Financial Services will remain on hold after the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to stand down as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faced a packed agenda this week, including a possible vote on a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That vote, however, was pulled from consideration Sept. 26.

The committee is said to have had an unofficial plan to release two more bills Sept. 26 and take them to a full committee markup on Sept. 28, a move that would have put them close to having the measures completed before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Lawmakers said the panel now won’t move any bills in the coming days but insisted more markups remain possible after the Senate disposes of other top priorities. With the ACA vote now off the table, McConnell said he is readying for a budget markup that will set the stage for a tax overhaul later this fall.

The pressure on appropriators to act has lessened after Congress passed a continuing resolution (H.R. 601) to fund the government through Dec. 8. Minus that action, federal funding also would have lapsed Sept. 30 as none of the 12 fiscal year 2018 spending bills have been finalized and sent to President Donald Trump’s desk for signature.

Homeland Attracts Controversy

But new challenges have emerged that complicate the outlook for marking up the bills. In particular, aides said the annual Homeland Security bill—once among those planned for early markup this month—has become more problematic in the aftermath of three major hurricanes. In addition, the Homeland bill is expected to attract many controversial riders if it advances, including a proposal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after Trump said he was abandoning the policy.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Appropriations panel, said work on replacing DACA is heating up but said there are other reasons for the slowdown on the measures.

“Obviously the health care debate going on and obviously all that’s happening with taxes are factors,” Lankford, chairman of the panel’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee, said. “All those things are bigger issues.”

Lankford said he can’t predict when the measures will be taken up.

“We were trying to get a couple in this week and more coming up in the next week but I’ve not heard exactly the timing on that,” he told reporters.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), ranking member of the Defense Subcommittee, said he is also unsure of the committee’s plans.

“We keep hearing the rumors [Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.] is going to move something and Defense will be last,” Durbin said.

Defense Bills, Budget Control Act

Some of the pending bills—such as the Interior measure—previously have been left behind due to potential controversies over amendments. It remains to be seen if the massive Defense bill this year becomes one of them. Cochran is following an allocation of $513.1 billion for base funding and $82.1 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account, figures that are close to this year’s funding. But that approach stands in contrast to the House omnibus (H.R. 3354) providing a roughly $70 billion increase. The House measure violates the Budget Control Act’s spending caps and would face a budgetary challenge if brought to the floor.

The $44.05 billion allocation for the Homeland Security bill, in contrast, is a $1.64 billion hike over current spending. But the increase has added controversy for the measure as it reflects the same amount Trump wants to begin building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman (R-Ark.) and ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) this month hosted a meeting to discuss Trump’s border wall and how to pay for it. Lawmakers said both Republicans and Democrats expressed opposition to laying out federal money for the project. A markup of the bill could generate an amendment to strip the $1.6 billion from the bill, forcing lawmakers to show their hands on the matter, Durbin said.

“Something like that is bound to happen,” Durbin said. “There may be some Republicans who don’t want to vote for that.”

But the bill’s path became even more complicated after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Irma caused severe damage in Florida. Those storms, plus the wreckage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, may require reworking the legislation even if a large part of the necessary disaster aid will be provided by way of supplemental spending.

DACA Amendments

The DACA controversy looms over both the Homeland and Financial Services bills. One issue is how young people brought here illegally might be able to stay in the U.S. and gain employment.

Durbin said Democrats are still weighing whether to try to offer the DREAM Act, which would grant conditional green cards to current DACA recipients and also set out a process to apply for permanent residency and potentially citizenship.

“I’m not going to say yes or no,” Durbin said. “We want to take a look at it and see if it makes sense. We don’t want to waste our time. We want to put it on something that is a must-pass bill ultimately.”

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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