What's Next? Top 10 Takeaways From Stopgap Fight

By Nancy Ognanovich

Sept. 30 — Congress kept the government running with enactment of the stopgap spending bill before the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1, but lawmakers will face even bigger challenges when they have to do it all over again in 10 weeks.

Action on the new continuing resolution only covered the government through Dec. 9, and House and Senate members said the stakes will be higher and the pitfalls more numerous when lawmakers reconvene in the lame-duck session to close out fiscal year 2017 appropriations.

While appropriators want to try to finalize all the individual bills and roll them into a year-end omnibus or “minibuses,” others—including the most conservative Republicans—are trying to convince House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to pass yet another CR into the winter. Should they fail, lawmakers could be facing the threat of a year-end shutdown.

Lawmakers' work is being driven by the fact that only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills has been finalized and sent to Obama. That bill—the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill—became the lead vehicle for the 10-week CR (H.R. 5325).

Lawmakers described some takeaways from the latest stopgap struggle and said as a result it's important to begin work on finalizing the rest of the appropriations bills quickly.

“[A] continuing resolution is a last resort,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said before the House passed the stopgap. “But at this point it is what we must do to fulfill our constitutional responsibility to keep the lights on in our government.”

1. Simple Things Became Hard

The CR simply extended out current funding and followed the two-year bipartisan budget deal negotiated by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Obama. The add-ons were few, with $1.1 billion to address the threat of the Zika virus and $500 million to help storm-ravaged states. It also carried the bipartisan Milcon-VA bill to help veterans. But even the relatively uncomplicated stopgap bogged down amid growing animosity and fierce partisanship.

The conflicts included those within parties, particularly tensions between Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he and other appropriators now have a big job to convince Republicans to back a $1.070 trillion spending plan with a myriad of provisions.

“There are some in this body that don't want to do that,” Cole said. “They want to simply [do] a continuing resolution to some point in the future next year, dumping off the work of this Congress and this administration on the next administration and the next Congress. That would be a big mistake, in my opinion.”

2. Backseat Role Worked for House

While spending bills historically originate in the House, Republican leaders' decision to have the Senate initiate action on the CR may have prevented the measure from getting bogged down in another series of House Republican Conference deliberations over length, levels and details, and allowed the less-volatile upper chamber to expedite the bill. That strategy, however, still wasn't without peril and McConnell got the CR through only two days before funds were due to run out. House members, meanwhile, were forced to swallow what the Senate sent over.

Still, Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were involved in the talks and helped broker the final deal on funding for Flint, Mich., that let the CR advance. Ryan said the House will begin work now to prepare bills for the floor.

“We're going to be working on these things so that in the fairly brief time we have in November and December, we can start moving appropriations bills,” Ryan said.

3. McConnell Key Dealmaker

Senate GOP leader McConnell, a senior appropriator, is seen as the primary force behind the CR deal as well as many others in the 114th Congress. He convinced fellow Republicans—including Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)—to forgo showdowns over funding or controversial add-ons that could have derailed the CR and in the process risk the party's chances to hold on to their Senate majority this fall. He also cut deals with Democratic leaders and the White House to keep the shutdown threat at bay. But it's not clear he will have as strong an argument to make with Cruz and other lawmakers when the election is over and decisions over $1.070 trillion in discretionary money loom.

4. Conservatives' Support Not a Given

Votes on the CR showed that, like Ryan, McConnell increasingly can't count on all members of his Republican caucus members to vote for appropriations measures. Besides Cruz and his conservative colleague Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another dozen Republicans opposed action on the CR.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) joined many of the lawmakers after the vote to argue for an overhaul of budget and appropriations rules.

“If we do nothing, we know what will happen,” Daines said. “We will be right back here—mark it on your calendars—the last week of September, and we will be here debating a CR, pushing it into December with some big omnibus vote. It will happen again, guaranteed, unless we change this process and change the people who serve in this institution.”

5. You Don't Always Get What You Want

Neither Obama nor Republican and Democratic leaders got all they wanted in the CR. The $1.1 billion in attached Zika funds was far less than the $1.9 billion Obama sought, and the White House didn't get all of those funds on an “emergency” basis. Republicans gave up on a rider aimed at keeping some of those funds from being used by Planned Parenthood, as well as riders to circumvent a Clean Water Act rule to allow pesticide spraying, and to prevent the transfer of oversight of internet domains. Proponents of the Export-Import Bank were forced to back away from efforts to change the bank's charter to help it make loans.

Ryan said his caucus members were prepared for such an outcome.

“I think people realized this is—this is what divided government gets you,” Ryan said. “You don't always get what you want in divided government.”

6. You Get What You Need

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) was more blunt when she told Democrats they should support the final package even though it didn't include direct assistance to help Flint address drinking water contamination.

Mikulski said Democrats needed to accept Republicans' pledge that $170 million for Flint will be included in the final version of the Water Resources Development Act rewrite that moves in December.

“Is it perfect? No. Is it acceptable? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely,” Mikulski said.

“Now that we have a path forward to help Flint, we’re going to take it because we want to do our jobs to avoid shutdowns, showdowns and slamdowns,” Mikulski said. “We are disappointed about Flint, but this bill also contains some very good items.”

7. Live to Fight Another Day

The $500 million in Community Development Block Grant money for Louisiana and other states is seen as only a down payment on the funding they will need to deal with storm damage. Members of the Louisiana delegation began lobbying Rogers for additional money even before the CR went to a final vote.

“The disaster funding provided through this legislation, though helpful, will not address all of the financial challenges our community is facing,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said.

Rogers told lawmakers to sit tight, suggesting more aid may be coming in an omnibus or supplemental.

“It is my intention to work with the White House, my colleagues in the Senate, as well as our respective leadership teams over the coming weeks to head off the personal and fiscal calamity so many are facing in south Louisiana,” Rogers said.

8. Disaster Aid Increasingly Politicized

But the emergency aid the House and Senate traditionally appropriated to help states recover from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters has become increasingly politicized and difficult to advance. That trend was first seen when many Republicans—including Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.)—voted against emergency aid for northeastern states in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

An amendment to add the $170 million for Flint to the WRDA bill was opposed by 141 House Republicans. Scalise, however, voted in favor of the aid and later urged support for what he said is only a “down payment” for Louisiana in the CR.

Across the Capitol, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said conservatives are dubious about the emergency funds being sought.

“We sat here today and listened to a lot of very valid pleas for help from the federal government,” Perdue said. “The reality is, we don't have the money.”

9. Digging in the Cushions

In order to cover some of the Zika funds, appropriators dug deep into the seat cushions and found unused money that years earlier had been set aside for other crises.

Among other things, they rescinded $37.4 million in funds appropriated in the late 1980s for emergency highway funds to rebuild after Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake. Other rescissions included emergency money appropriated for the Federal Aviation Administration after Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew.

10. Deals Can Be Cut Fast

More than a week of talks between the two sides yielded no deal—until the deadline to fund the government was three days away. Then the package was quickly finalized and put to a vote in both chambers on the same day.

“The main takeaway I can see is that once we really decide we're going to get serious and agree on something then we get it done pretty quickly,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “So hopefully we'll come back after the election and get this thing done. It's so important to the agencies to know what their budgets are going to be.”

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

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.