Spending Bill Strategy Sputters as Clock Runs Down

By Nancy Ognanovich

June 16 — House and Senate Republican leaders' plans to move all the annual spending bills individually before the recess next month continued to sputter, with lawmakers struggling to pass even half of the measures before the July recess.

Even as the House passed the massive $575 billion Department of Defense bill, the outlook for many more to pass before a planned July 15 departure appeared increasingly murky amid partisan disputes and the realities of the short calendar.

Meanwhile, Senate work on the otherwise bipartisan Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill ground to a halt as Democrats demanded opportunities to use the bill as a vehicle to address gun violence. Appropriators said they will return to work on the bill the week of June 20 but declined to say when the Senate's version of the Defense bill will be brought to the floor. They said instead it's likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will take up a House-passed bill to deal with Puerto Rico's debt crisis before a June 24 deadline.

The developments mean House and Senate leaders will have to use most of September to develop and pass a new continuing resolution to fund the government to prevent any lapse when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the House will turn to the annual Financial Services appropriations bill the week of June 20, legislation that continues to put pressure on the Internal Revenue Service, a target for Republicans as they position themselves for the November election. But the Senate version is unlikely to see floor time before the recess, senators said.

Senate Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman (R-Ark.) told Bloomberg BNA that the crisis in the aftermath of the Orlando mass shooting is among the items that is requiring McConnell to revisit his plans for the weeks that remain before lawmakers leave for the Republican convention.

“Right now we're in discussions on how we get some of these things done but we've had this national security issue come up, and that takes precedent,” Boozman said when asked about the outlook for his bill and others to come to the floor. “It probably has surpassed some of the things they wanted to do.”

Four `Off the Floor?'

The Defense bill (H.R. 5293) was passed in the House 282 to 138 after a debate governed by a structured rule that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) adopted as a strategy after the Energy and Water bill (H.R. 5055) failed to pass amid a dispute over amendments (See previous story, 06/09/16).

While dozens of amendments were still considered during debate, Democrats said they were blocked from offering many they wanted. On final passage, 132 Democrats voted with six Republicans in opposition to the bill. Meanwhile, 234 Republicans and 48 Democrats voted in favor of the measure.

During the four work days that remain before the 10-day July 4 break, McCarthy said the House will consider the Financial Services (H.R. 5485) bill under a structured rule. But he has not announced what other spending bills will move during the nine work days that remain when lawmakers return.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) warned McCarthy on the floor that Democrats again will press to offer an amendment to protect LGBT employees of federal contractors, the issue that led to the demise of the Energy and Water bill (See previous story, 05/27/16).

If the House passes Financial Services over Democrats' objections, appropriators will have managed to pass four of the 12 fiscal-year 2017 spending bills on the floor. The other two are Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (H.R. 4974), the vehicle for a Zika supplemental, and Legislative Branch (H.R. 5325).

McCarthy didn't mention the prospects for the other eight bills but said the Zika plan is a top priority.

“[W]e would like to bring it to the floor as soon as possible for passage,” McCarthy said.

July 8 Departure?

The outlook is similar in the Senate, where McConnell held back moving on to the Defense bill (S. 3000) amid demand from lawmakers to debate many controversial amendments.

If C-J-S (H.R. 2578) is passed soon, the action also would bring to four the number of bills that McConnell has been able to pass under his “regular order” agenda.

“If we can get past the gun amendments, we'll probably move the bill if they want us to,” CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told Bloomberg BNA.

McConnell agreed the Senate will consider competing amendments from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) to address the loophole that allows terror suspects to buy guns (See previous story, 06/16/16). Cloture votes on those and two others offered by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) will begin June 20.

Boozman said he hasn't heard what other spending bills—if any—still have a chance of moving. McConnell's office insists senators will work until July 15, but Boozman said he also has heard the Senate may wrap up work a week by July 8.

“I've heard it both ways,” Boozman said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a senior appropriator, said he is unsure whether more bills will move.

“[O]bviously there is a limited amount of time on the floor and the more time we spend on other things the less time there is for appropriations,” Alexander said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com