Senate Spending Bills Are on a Smooth Path — for Now

While the budget deal helped, some senators see roadblocks ahead.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) (C) talks to reporters as she is on his way to the Senate Chamber for a vote March 24, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Senate has passed a cloture vote 78-17 to advance a package that will aid sanctions regarding Russias annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.  
National Journal
Michael Catalini
June 4, 2014, 4:09 p.m.

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.

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