Spending cardinals face heap of holiday disputes

Lawmakers on the House and Senate spending panels have a mountain of disputes to resolve over the holiday break before they can produce the giant bill needed to keep the government open after Jan. 15.

The newly enacted budget deal sets two spending caps — $492 billion for domestic programs and $520 billion for defense spending — but leaves the rest of the details up to negotiation.

The closed-door talks will be key since Congress is expected to have little ability to amend what appropriators release the week of Jan. 6.

The good news is that appropriators already have secretly agreed on an outline dividing the $1.012 trillion budget top-line into 12 pieces.

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Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she is confident the final bill can get done but time is tight.

“I think there is a will, there’s a way, we just need to work it over the break and meet these very stringent deadlines,” she said. “I’m optimistic. My subcommittee chairs are all fired up.”

The remaining challenge for those subcommittee “cardinals” is how much money agencies and programs within each of the 12 areas receives. There are also a large array of policies to resolve on everything from abortion services in the District of Columbia and EPA climate change regulations to Saturday postal delivery and the fate of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

While others are trimming Christmas trees, 12 pairs of subcommittee chairmen will be working the phones during recess to trim competing House and Senate versions of 12 separate spending bills into a final omnibus package.

Perhaps the most explosive issue is the one that caused the last shutdown: dealing with ObamaCare. The implementation of the health reform law is partially covered by the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill and the Financial Services subcommittees. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Dec. 13 that ObamaCare remains a problem in the omnibus talks despite the fact many in the GOP are reluctant to risk any repeat of the October government shutdown, which was sparked by efforts to defund the healthcare law.

The House subcommittee headed by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who is running for a Senate seat, never produced a Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill this year. But its 2012 bill was loaded with ObamaCare riders.

Immigration issues are on the table as well.

Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) on Friday urged Rogers and Mikulski to include a new provision requiring the IRS to demand Social Security numbers from tax credit recipients to ensure illegal immigrants do not benefit. The provision could save $4 billion a year and pay for reversing the cut to military retiree benefits in the budget deal, he said. A Kingston House bill rider prohibiting the Justice Department from trying to invalidate state immigration laws is also controversial.

That bill also defunded Planned Parenthood over abortion among other abortion-related measures.  Sen. Tom Harkin (R-Iowa), who remains the subcommittee negotiator on these matters, has called such restrictions “nuts.”

The House did produce a Financial Service draft bill that sought to block the Internal Revenue Service from using funds to enforce the ObamaCare mandate.

The draft produced by Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) would continue the current prohibition on the District of Columbia spending its own funds on abortion services and contains language stopping the ObamaCare insurance exchanges from containing plans that pay for abortion.

The House position in the talks does not provide the funding that the Obama administration says is needed for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The Senate wants $110 million more for CFTC and $353 million more for the SEC. The White House said the House approach would “cripple Wall Street reform” when it threatened to veto it.

Reform of the troubled Postal Service is impacted by a provision in the Financial Services bill that forbids the ending of Saturday mail delivery.  On Dec. 19, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote to Rogers asking that the provision be removed from the omnibus to allow him to move forward with a postal bill.

The biggest of the funding areas is the Pentagon, which continues to face cuts under the budget deal compared to pre-sequester spending levels of early 2013.

Subcommittee chairmen Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) are already knee-deep in figuring out how to distribute more than $20 billion in cuts. Durbin, who took over the subcommittee this year, told reporters he wants to spread the pain around.

On the environment, Rogers, who hails from coal country and is the architect of the House bill, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who faces a Tea Party primary challenge, are eager for restrictions on regulations.

The House bill contains many restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency. It blocks EPA rules that require refiners to sharply cut the sulfur content of gasoline. The oil industry strongly opposes the so-called Tier 3 rules, alleging they will impose major costs, while public health advocates back the regulation.

It also blocks controversial EPA rules that would impose first-time carbon emissions standards on the nation’s power plants, which are the largest unregulated single source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Other hot button controversies include:

— Whether to block implementation of the controversial Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) rule. Supporters say the rule is designed to give new protections to small poultry and hog producers in their dealings with meat processors. Opponents say it is heavy-handed regulation that stifles the food.

— Whether to force the Women, Infant and Children feeding program to pay for purchases of fresh potatoes. Currently the program says potatoes are not nutritious enough.

— How much to cut from the Community Development Block Grant program, which the House tried to cut in half.

— How much to cut from the affordable housing HOME program.

— Whether to cut Amtrak funding and whether to prohibit spending on high speed rail in California.

— Whether to keep language that prevents the government from relocating Guantanamo Bay detainees to federal prisons.

— Multiple gun provisions including one stopping the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from requiring the reporting of purchases of multiple firearms in border states.

— A Kingston rider prohibiting the Justice Department from trying to invalidate state immigration laws

— How much foreign aid should be cut. The House, using a sequester level funding, tried to cut $5.8 billion in aid. Polls consistently show public disapproval of foreign aid and public confusion about its relatively small size compared to the overall federal budget. 

— A rider prohibiting funding to implement the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which is opposed by the National Rifle Association.

— How to impose limits to $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt if it does not transition to democracy. Both the House and Senate bills outlined an approach.

— Whether the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be defunded as in the House bill.

— Whether to cut funding to the National Labor Relations Board and whether to restrict it from promulgating certain pro-union regulations. The House has, in the past, tried to institute a prohibition on establishing so-called micro-unions and a prohibition on eliminating secret ballot elections.