By Bernie Becker and Kevin Bogardus - 01/09/14 06:00 AM EST
Lobbyists and advocacy groups are working furiously to make their mark on an upcoming $1 trillion spending bill.
K Street sees the omnibus measure as a rare opportunity to shape legislation destined to reach President Obama’s desk that touches practically every part of American life.
“It is a must-pass legislative vehicle that could become a post-holiday Christmas tree for items policymakers and lobbyists have been trying to achieve with no luck for years,” said Mike Fulton, president of the Arnold Agency’s Washington office.
But lobbyists are also locking in on some narrower and more exotic topics, like Cuban travel and a possible customs pre-clearance in Abu Dhabi.
The problem for K Street? The top appropriators in Congress — Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) — are being tight-lipped about what’s in the omnibus package they hope to release in the coming days.
Plus, given how much trouble the House and Senate have had in finding common ground on fiscal issues, lobbyists also worry that lawmakers will tamp down the number of policy riders allowed.
“This bill is going to be clean as a whistle. Anyone telling you they’re getting riders is lying,” one Republican lobbyist said. “They’ll scrub it with a fine-toothed comb.”
Rogers, heading into a meeting with House leaders on Wednesday, said that eight of the 12 parts of the omnibus were basically done.
Appropriators want a bill to be ready by Friday. But either way, Rogers said a stopgap spending bill would probably be needed to avoid a Jan. 16 shutdown.
In the meantime, top appropriators say lobbying is increasing by the minute.
“Things are never closed. I have quite a lot of things given to me in the last hour by people who think things are always open,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who chairs the Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Defense lobbyists are seeking to make sure their pet programs are safe, after the December budget agreement forced an extra $25 billion in cuts to their sector.
But given the $520 billion cap for defense spending, K Street doesn’t expect any major programs to get the ax, and Frelinghuysen said he didn’t foresee big changes to initiatives such as the F-35 fighter jet.
In fact, lobbyists are looking for the Pentagon to find ways to increase funding for the war in Afghanistan, which isn’t subject to the cap.
Still, that hasn’t stopped groups seeking to rein in defense spending from reaching out to Capitol Hill. A selection of otherwise strange bedfellows, ranging from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform to the liberal U.S. PIRG, are pressing to delay, cancel or reform a variety of defense projects, including the F-35.
“Spending on ineffective weapons systems and wasteful Pentagon programs does not make us safer, but spending smarter can make us stronger,” the groups wrote in an open letter to Congress.
Congressional Republicans remain interested in scrapping all discretionary funding for the healthcare law in the omnibus. But that’s a nonstarter for Democrats and basically the same stance that led to last year’s government shutdown.
Environmental groups have said that Republicans easily could hold out for some of the dozens of potential environmental riders, in areas like pollution control standards, if they get stonewalled on ObamaCare.
“We wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” said Scott Slesinger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who said his group was pushing hard to keep the riders out even though appropriators were already well aware of the group’s stance.
“All these riders are important,” Slesinger said. “All these riders are inappropriate for an appropriations bill.”
Appropriators say another fight, over funding for the financial regulators trying to implement Dodd-Frank, is far from new but remains a sticking point in omnibus negotiations.
The White House has pushed for beefier budgets for the regulators like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission since Dodd-Frank passed in 2010. In turn, Republicans have resisted those hikes, arguing that regulators have enough cash already.
“Wall Street and its allies are fighting as aggressively and relentlessly as they have since day one,” said Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, a Wall Street reform advocacy group.
For their part, financial industry groups say they are steering clear of the funding fight, even if Republicans may not be.
Other issues might not be as big of roadblocks for appropriators, but they are still being fiercely lobbied.
Mike Hammond of the Gun Owners of America said the group had “put out a few feelers” about impeding new proposed Obama administration regulations to tighten gun control.
Appropriators are also feeling pressure over a provision to add potatoes to a major food and nutrition program, while public interest groups and unions sent their own letter on Monday to appropriators to stop budget cuts of more than $11 million to food safety inspectors. Those groups want to remove language urging the Agriculture Department to change the poultry inspection program as well.
And Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, a Cuban human rights group, said his group is pushing for language in the House Financial Services appropriations bill that strengthens U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba. The Senate version loosens other limits.
Elsewhere, the travel industry generally wants to see increased funding for the Customs and Border Protection agency, as wait times grow longer at air and seaports — most of the time, at least.
In a letter dated Tuesday and sent to senators, leaders of Airlines for America, Air Line Pilots Association and the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association said lawmakers should oppose the opening of a Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility at the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
“No U.S. passenger airline currently provides direct scheduled service between the United States and Abu Dhabi,” the groups wrote, noting that the facility would be “at an airport from which one foreign airline competitor provides just three daily flights to the United States.”
Jeremy Herb, Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed.