The two senators who shepherded the lone appropriations bill to reach the Senate floor last year are showing flashes of optimism about the process this year.
Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Susan Collins of Maine saw their Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bill blocked last year over GOP fears of busting the Budget Control Act caps. This year, though, lawmakers have a sunnier outlook.
"I suspect that this year will be easier because we have a budget and we've written the bill to the budget level," Collins said.
That sentiment jibes with plans made by Democratic leaders and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, with aides confirming that Majority Leader Harry Reid intends to consider some of the bills on the floor during the last two weeks in June and two weeks in July ahead of the August recess.
But as the full committee prepares Thursday to mark up the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development and the Commerce, Justice, and Science bills, a sense of skepticism that Congress really will move all 12 bills is pervasive.
Despite the two-year budget deal, which set the overall spending levels that bind appropriators, there are already signs of mistrust on both sides of the aisle. Privately, Democrats worry that once the bills reach the floor Republicans will seek policy riders that amount to poison pills.
Specifically, aides worry that the funding bill for the Labor and Health and Human Services departments, which is traditionally controversial, could rankle Republicans. The committee has not taken up that bill yet.
For their part, Senate Republicans are abiding by the budget deal. Appropriators have unanimously moved the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs appropriations bills to the floor, for instance.
"The Murray-Ryan budget agreement has provided us the foundation to begin our work," ranking Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama said in a statement in support of the Commerce, Justice, Science measure.
But Republicans have criticized Senate Democrats for $19 billion in budget outlay requests beyond what House Republicans have sought. Democrats dispute this, saying their budget authority figure matches House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's figure.
The appropriations bills also come to the floor at a time of heightened partisan tension over procedural battles, to say nothing of campaign season. Many political handicappers say Republicans have a good shot at taking the majority. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are angry, having felt the sting of Reid's rules change, which made it harder for them to block President Obama's nominees. They also complain—correctly—that Reid prevents them from offering amendments.
Still, the appropriations process is unfolding. Tasked with allocating $1.014 trillion in funds for the government's discretionary programs and with time until the August recess running down, Mikulski may package some of the bills together in what insiders call "minibuses," legislation that is smaller than an omnibus but more than a single spending measure.
While the budget deal put spending crises in the rearview mirror for now, senators are suggesting roadblocks remain. "I think there are a number of members who want regular order to occur and want these to move forward," Murray said. "We'll see if they get tied up otherwise."
Meanwhile, the House has already passed three appropriations bills, and aides say leadership will put the THUD bill on the floor when lawmakers return next week.
The Senate has yet to pass even one appropriations bill.
This article appears in the June 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.