Dems show their hand in budget poker

Dems show their hand in budget poker
© Greg Nash

One amendment at a time, Democrats are revealing their demands for a year-end budget deal.

Backed by veto threats from President Obama, Senate Democrats are refusing to allow votes on spending bills that do not lift the budget caps under sequestration. Democrats in the House are also refusing to cooperate.

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But even as they have criticized the GOP spending bills as a waste of time, Democrats have participated in the committee markups of the legislation.

During each of those sessions, Democrats offered amendments that would provide more money to various programs and agencies — effectively giving the GOP a roadmap of their spending priorities.

“They’re laying down their markers. When the budget deal comes to fruition, that’s where they’re going to put their money,” said Michelle Mrdeza, who leads the Homeland Security practice at Cornerstone Government Affairs and previously worked as staff director for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Among the agencies that Democrats have singled out for funding increases are Amtrak, NASA, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They have also pushed to provide more money to housing programs and increase grants for disaster preparation.

While most of the Democratic amendments failed because they would have violated spending limits, they’ve laid the groundwork for what could be a compromise with Republicans later this year.

“They’re going to have to prioritize even those amendments that they’ve offered and decide which one of these, how much of each one of these, we want to bring to the table and have part of our package,” Mrdeza said.

But before they can haggle over spending levels, lawmakers would first need a new budget agreement to lift the $1.017 trillion spending cap set under sequestration.

Democrats say they want to see another agreement like the one struck in 2013 by Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Ryan: Americans want to see Trump talking with Dem leaders Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayWeek ahead: Senators near deal to stabilize ObamaCare markets Policymaking commission offers a glimmer of hope in hyper-partisan Washington Dems call on DeVos to work with CFPB to protect student borrowers MORE (D-Wash.) that eased sequestration for two years and set spending levels across the government.

Without such a deal, they say work on the 12 annual appropriations bills is pointless.

“To waste all this time, when we know that until we get rid of the sequester, and until we have a Murray-Ryan or a Murray-whatever, we’re not going to have the real bills,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said at a markup.

Republicans have blasted the Democratic demands as obstructionism and labeled their blockade of spending bill in the Senate the “filibuster summer.”

Whether Republicans will relent and open budget negotiations remains to be seen.

But Democratic lawmakers aren’t waiting around, pushing a variety of proposals that could end up on the party’s wish list in budget talks.

At one recent markup, Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill MORE (D-Ore.) offered an amendment that would have added $890 million to a $20.5 billion Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding bill. He said the amendment was intentionally structured to be part of a new budget deal.

“The investments I’m describing I think have a lot of bipartisan support, and since the amendment is constructed so that these additional investments only occur with a higher budget allocation, it’s an open invitation to make it not only a set of bipartisan programs, but a bipartisan vote,” Merkley said.

In fact, all of the Democrats’ proposals in the Senate to increase funding explicitly say the money cannot be made available until a “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015” is signed into law.

If Democrats had their way in a budget deal:

• Amtrak would receive at least $1.3 billion more next year for capital grants to cover operating expenses, improve trains, stations, tracks and signals. They specifically want $825 million for a Positive Train Control technology that experts have said could have prevented the deadly derailment in May.

• NASA would receive $240 million more next year to end the U.S. reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

• The CDC would be given nearly $490 million more to fight HIV/AIDS, combat infectious diseases and carry out wellness and chronic disease programs

• Head Start would receive a funding boost of $1.4 billion. That increase, Democrats say, would allow programs to provide services to low-income children for a full school day and full school year.

• The Environmental Protection Agency would get nearly $31 million for science and technology programs that Democrats say are critical for addressing climate change and water quality.

Democrats have also taken aim at Republican proposals in the spending bills that they want scaled back or abandoned entirely.

Lowey released a 9-page report last week to highlight Democrats’ objections to both funding levels and policy provisions in the 12 spending bills.

“Faced with caps that prevent responsible investments in critical priorities, the Republican majority has presented bills that slash funding for public health, public safety, and the environment, and targeted programs important to women and families’ personal finances,” the report said.

Democrats complained that Republicans would eliminate funding for a Justice Department program to improve police relations with communities.

Lowey said Republicans failed to provide $175 million for grants for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that are used to flood-proof and elevate homes and prepare for disasters.

In addition, family planning services would receive zero funding, which Democrats said would prevent 4 million women from accessing contraception, pregnancy testing, counseling and other prenatal services.

Democrats have also railed against policy provisions that seek to take aim at relations with Cuba, environmental and health regulations and gun laws, among other issues.

GOP leaders have yet to reveal their next moves.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) held a round-table discussion with his GOP subcommittee chairmen this week to discuss the appropriations process, but no decisions were made about the path forward on the bills, spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.

In early July, GOP leaders in the House yanked a bill to fund the EPA and Interior Department because of a fight over the Confederate flag.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, stopped bringing spending bills to the Senate floor in mid-June after Democrats filibustered a bill to fund the Pentagon.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate MORE (R-Ohio) on Thursday told reporters “it’s pretty clear” Congress will likely have to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Once that happens, lawmakers and budget experts expect the real work on a deal to begin.

Lowey told The Hill while she doesn’t expect the negotiations to happen “anytime soon,” she thinks a deal on spending could be reached quickly once sequestration is eased.

“Once the signal is given, I think they could sit down seriously, work out some good numbers and good changes that may not be everything I want, but certainly won’t be the roadmap that the Republicans put together,” she said.

“I think there could be some good compromises.”