Still Squabbling Over Amendments, Senate Remains Stalled on Appropriations

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Senate Appropriations Committee Chairmwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) gavels in a hearing about the surge in unaccompanied children at the border in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. The administration officials were asking Congress to approve and emergency supplemental request of $3.7 billion to help with the sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children who are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
July 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

The Sen­ate is tak­ing up only the second spend­ing bill to reach the floor this year — the $3.57 bil­lion sup­ple­ment­al for the bor­der crisis, wild­fires, and the de­fense of Is­rael — and pro­spects for pas­sage are as slim as they were for the first one that died in June.

And so without any of the 12 an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations bills com­pleted two months be­fore fisc­al year 2015 be­gins — and with a five-week re­cess just ahead — the talk has turned to­ward stop­gap meas­ures.

Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, long bear­ish on the pro­spects of jump-start­ing the dormant ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess after the two-year bi­par­tis­an budget deal passed last year, are now point­ing to the like­li­hood that a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion will be ne­ces­sary to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning past Oct. 1.

Sen. Tom Har­kin of Iowa, chair­man of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee on Labor, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, Edu­ca­tion, and Re­lated Agen­cies, said he ex­pects the Sen­ate to take up a short-term spend­ing bill be­fore the end of the cur­rent fisc­al year on Sept. 30 and to ex­tend fund­ing un­til Decem­ber, after the midterms.

It’s too early to sketch the con­tours of the bill, sen­at­ors say, but some sug­gest the work done so far by the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee could serve as a road map.

“I would note that an enorm­ous amount of bi­par­tis­an work has gone in­to for­ging bi­par­tis­an ap­pro­pri­ations bills over here, and there is a bi­par­tis­an sense that that work should not be wasted,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land.

Har­kin sug­ges­ted the same, say­ing he hopes the com­mit­tee’s work will be fol­ded in­to an om­ni­bus — a large-scale bill that would re­flect the work already done on the spend­ing meas­ures this Con­gress.

At stake is a more than tril­lion-dol­lar budget for dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing. Last year’s budget deal capped spend­ing for fisc­al year 2014 at $1.012 tril­lion, with that fig­ure rising to $1.014 tril­lion in 2015. While the House has passed eight ap­pro­pri­ations bills, the Sen­ate has yet to move one off the floor.

The Sen­ate has struggled with spend­ing bills this year, not be­cause of road­b­locks at the com­mit­tee level but be­cause of par­tis­an dis­agree­ments over amend­ments once the bills reached the floor. That’s what tor­pedoed a three-part spend­ing bill that in­cluded funds for Ag­ri­cul­ture, Trans­port­a­tion, and Com­merce last month.

The fight over amend­ments was also on dis­play this week, when Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski of Mary­land sought to bring the fund­ing bill for mil­it­ary con­struc­tion and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs to the floor.

“I am not try­ing to stiff-arm the op­por­tun­ity to of­fer amend­ments,” Mikul­ski said this week. “But we have 72 hours left be­fore we take this really long break — really long, long, long, very long — did I say long? — break. I do not think when you need health care for vet­er­ans, when you need to mod­ern­ize tech­no­logy [at the VA], when you need to crack the back­log — while we are kind of bask­ing in the sun some­where, I do not want [vet­er­ans] in line.”

Ap­pro­pri­ations rank­ing mem­ber Richard Shelby of Alabama blocked the re­quest. Shelby wanted al­tern­at­ing amend­ments between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans, and Mikul­ski re­jec­ted the idea.

“My re­sponse should not be in­ter­preted as a pug­na­cious re­jec­tion,” she said. “I ap­pre­ci­ate the civil and cour­teous way the sen­at­or from Alabama has re­spon­ded, but in a nut­shell, what the sen­at­or from Alabama is re­quest­ing is that we not pick up the sup­ple­ment­al, that we bring up the VA-Mil­Con in­stead. I would like to bring up both bills.”

Not all Demo­crats op­pose let­ting Re­pub­lic­ans have amend­ments. Some say they sup­port al­low­ing amend­ments as long as they are rel­ev­ant to the le­gis­la­tion on the floor.

Asked wheth­er it would be bet­ter to pass no spend­ing bills than to al­low Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments, Har­kin said: “No. I al­ways felt that we ought to al­low Re­pub­lic­ans to of­fer amend­ments — ger­mane to the bill. If they can agree to that, then fine.”

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