The Budget Deal That Stole Christmas

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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 22: Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill May 22, 2013 in Washington DC. The news conference was held to provide an update on efforts to eliminate the Veterans Affairs Department claims backlog.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Michael Catalini
Dec. 16, 2013, 3:46 p.m.

While much of Cap­it­ol Hill is get­ting ready for the hol­i­day break, those who work on the Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees have a dif­fer­ent vis­ion for the days ahead — and it ain’t sug­ar plums.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to pass the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act of 2013 early this week, but the real work of fund­ing the gov­ern­ment is just get­ting star­ted, as con­gres­sion­al ap­pro­pri­at­ors and their staff plan to work through the hol­i­days to avoid an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Ap­pro­pri­at­ors are sig­nal­ing that they will com­plete a 12-bill om­ni­bus pack­age for the re­mainder of fisc­al 2014 by Jan. 15.

“We will meet that dead­line,” Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski said. “It’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be strin­gent. But we will get that job done.”

Ap­pro­pri­at­ors are aim­ing high. Both Mikul­ski and House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers have com­mit­ted to draft­ing a dozen sep­ar­ate ap­pro­pri­ations bills that will fig­ure in­to om­ni­bus le­gis­la­tion cov­er­ing the re­mainder of the fisc­al year. Ap­pro­pri­at­ors are hope­ful that they can pass the om­ni­bus through both cham­bers be­fore the cur­rent fund­ing mech­an­ism ex­pires in Janu­ary.

“I hope it’s a bus that really moves,” Mikul­ski, D-Md., joked on the Sen­ate floor.

At worst, ap­pro­pri­ations staffers say, they would push a very short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion — po­ten­tially as short as 36 hours — to give the com­mit­tees more time to draft bills.

Con­ver­sa­tions between mem­bers of the Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees have been on­go­ing but began in earn­est last week after the House passed the Ry­an-Mur­ray budget agree­ment, which set top-line num­bers for fisc­al 2014.

But the agree­ment did not set spend­ing fig­ures for the in­di­vidu­al sub­com­mit­tees. Mikul­ski and Ro­gers, R-Ky., will have to agree to those num­bers be­fore their sub­com­mit­tee chairs can get to work. Though the two chairs have met to dis­cuss the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess, they are un­likely to come to an agree­ment on spend­ing levels be­fore the Sen­ate of­fi­cially passes the budget bill, which is ex­pec­ted on Tues­day or Wed­nes­day.

The ap­pro­pri­ations for De­fense and Home­land Se­cur­ity are ex­pec­ted to be com­pleted with re­l­at­ive ease, with few dis­agree­ments between mem­bers of both parties on the over­all spend­ing for each.

In fact, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the De­fense Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee, said that he began meet­ing with his House coun­ter­part, Rep. Rod­ney Frel­inghuysen of New Jer­sey, on Thursday. “We think we know if the Mur­ray-Ry­an agree­ment goes through what our budget num­ber is go­ing to be,” Durbin said. “We’ve already star­ted work­ing to get 60 per­cent of the dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing taken care of in our ap­pro­pri­ation bill. That’s how quickly we can move once this agree­ment be­comes the law.”

The real dif­fi­culties will come as both cham­bers get to work on fund­ing bills for In­teri­or and En­vir­on­ment and for Labor, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, Edu­ca­tion, where Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are much fur­ther apart on spend­ing levels. Ne­go­ti­ations over the Labor-Health ap­pro­pri­ations haven’t be­gun yet, a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said.

While the form­al pro­cess of draft­ing bills can­not be­gin un­til the Sen­ate passes the budget agree­ment, staffers have already be­gun identi­fy­ing stick­ing points that will have to be ironed out be­fore law­makers re­turn in Janu­ary. The pro­cess is “not very far along” at the mo­ment, ac­cord­ing to one staffer, mean­ing that a lot of the heavy lift­ing will have to be done dur­ing the hol­i­day re­cess.

With the House already out for the hol­i­days, and the Sen­ate plan­ning to leave at the end of this week, most of the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess will be car­ried out by staff. Staff mem­bers have been ad­vised to stick around over the hol­i­days, while law­makers will primar­ily par­ti­cip­ate over the phone, as they pre­pare le­gis­la­tion for Con­gress to con­sider when both houses re­turn in early Janu­ary.

“It’s doable. We’ve done it be­fore…. It’s not to say that it won’t be very, very dif­fi­cult,” one House Re­pub­lic­an staffer said of the Jan. 15 dead­line.

The hope is that staffers will not have to work on Christ­mas Day it­self, but both the House and Sen­ate com­mit­tees will likely be work­ing up to Dec. 25 and through New Year’s Day.

“Bet­ter in the hol­i­day sea­son than not at all,” said one House Demo­crat­ic staffer.

Though the House passed only five of the 12 bills — and the Sen­ate passed none — in 2013, the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act has ap­pro­pri­at­ors cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic about keep­ing the gov­ern­ment open.

“We’ll work with whatever the num­ber is,” said Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations rank­ing mem­ber Richard Shelby of Alabama. “I’ve al­ways said if we had a num­ber, we ought to go by the num­ber.”

Law­makers, es­pe­cially Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­know­ledge that the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess is para­mount to avoid­ing an­oth­er shut­down.

Call it crisis fa­tigue. Law­makers, even those who have con­sist­ently voted to re­ject com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion, are be­gin­ning to em­brace the budget deal and sig­nal sup­port for reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations bills, too.

“Fund­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment through suc­cess­ive con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions is a bad idea that only res­ults in great­er in­ef­fi­cien­cies, waste, and eco­nom­ic un­cer­tainty,” said Sen. Ron John­son, a Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an. “It is a prac­tice that should end.”

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