Summer spending fight looms

Summer spending fight looms
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Congress faces rough waters ahead on government spending, with less than five months before the annual deadline to pass a full slate of appropriations bills for the next fiscal year.

For the first time in a decade, Republicans last week adopted a bicameral budget blueprint. But that was the easy part compared to the looming spending fight.  

House Republicans have already started shuffling through a few of the dozen spending bills, which have already received veto threats from the White House.

Senate Democrats have also threatened to block spending bills from ever reaching the floor because Republicans are sticking to sequestration budget ceilings that are set to take effect when fiscal 2016 begins on Oct. 1.

The split between the two parties over spending could lead to another crisis this fall.

Like previous years, lawmakers will have few options: find a bipartisan compromise, extend this year’s funding levels with a continuing resolution (CR), or allow another government shutdown. And the partisan finger pointing has already begun.

“CRs and shutdowns will be caused by the Republican majority. I would hope that we can move forward with our appropriations bills, but the ridiculous Republican budget makes it almost impossible,” Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (D-Md.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill.

Democrats and the Obama administration want Congress to replicate a deal Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFreedomWorks backs Jim Jordan for House Speaker House, Senate GOP compete for cash Some doubt McCarthy or Scalise will ever lead House GOP MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDuckworth brings her baby to Senate vote, drawing a crowd Maternal deaths keep rising in US, raising scrutiny Senators press administration on mental health parity MORE (D-Wash.) reached in the last Congress, relieving sequestration pressures for two years. That deal expires in October.

It emerged in December 2013 after a bruising spending fight led to a 16-day government shutdown just a few months earlier. Republicans took a hit the polls, though they came out victorious in the midterm elections a year later.

While there has been chatter on Capitol Hill about a similar deal getting done this year, no formal negotiations have begun.

“It can start anytime,” Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHannity, Kimmel, Farrow among Time's '100 Most Influential' The Hill's Morning Report: 200 Days to the Election Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination MORE (D-Ill.) told reporters last week.

“That’s too early right now,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), former ranking member on the Senate Appropriations panel, told The Hill.

“It’s May. I would say between now and the fall sometime — it might be late — I’m guessing we’ll either get a majority of the appropriations bills, maybe an omnibus, maybe a hybrid,” he predicted.

But experts who track the budget and appropriations process say this year could follow the same pattern as two years ago.

“It’s shaping up to be the same thing," said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “This, by the way, holds a little bit of danger for the Republican label or brand if they can’t get stuff done controlling both House and Senate.”

House Republican leaders already encountered a hiccup recently when a bipartisan group of lawmakers banded together to try to undermine what they call “budget gimmicks” in two spending bills.

The group of Republicans and Democrats attempted to strip out sections that called for the use of the Pentagon war fund to pay for items in bills funding military construction projects and veterans’ benefits. The war fund’s purpose is to pay for military operations overseas.

Bell predicted this effort could resurface with other appropriations bills in both chambers.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillHeitkamp becomes first Dem to back Pompeo for secretary of State Duckworth brings her baby to Senate vote, drawing a crowd McCaskill outpaces GOP opponent by more than million MORE (D-Mo.) told The Hill Republicans are “pretending” to balance the budget using the Pentagon’s war fund, which she called a “slush fund.”

“They’re trying to [do a] slush fund on the defense side and do nothing on the domestic side. That’s not going to fly so I’m worried because the budget was such a fantasy,” she said.

Beyond the war fund, Democrats have also complained about controversial riders Republicans have tucked inside some of the spending bills — many of which seek to undermine Obama’s executive actions.

Some are the same riders that complicated last year's negotiations over this year’s spending bills.

One key rider in a transportation and housing bill would limit travel from the United States to Cuba, taking aim at Obama’s new policy to normalize relations with the Communist-ruled island.

It would block funding for new scheduled air transportation from the U.S. if any flights land on or pass through property confiscated by the Cuban government. The bill would also restrict funding for any licenses or certifications to vessels, including cruise ships, that dock near Cuba during a certain time on property confiscated by the Cuban government.

In December, Obama laid out a new policy in which the travel embargo on Cuba remains in place, but the administration is making it easier for people to obtain licenses to travel there. JetBlue announced last week it would begin offering flights from New York City to Cuba.

Another bill would prohibit the use of funds to be used to construct or expand a facility based in the U.S. to house prisoners currently held at the Guantánamo Bay prison. Since Obama took office, he’s tried to find a way to close down the facility.

The administration has also blasted riders in a bill funding energy and water development programs that seek to unravel efforts to protect clean water.  

All of these accumulating riders will make the spending debate messy, and the funding levels are more problematic.

Democrats, however, have made clear they’ll remain steadfast in their demands to dismiss the GOP budget and push for sequestration relief and for equal increases to the Pentagon and domestic programs.

“Our first battle was the budget battle,” Mikulski said. “We really didn’t believe they would be that ridiculous and that pugnacious. But if they’re going to be pugnacious, we’ll pug back.”