House begins work on spending bills despite budget impasse

House begins work on spending bills despite budget impasse
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House Republicans are plowing ahead with their first spending bill of the year despite the lack of a budget resolution to guide them.

GOP leaders say they haven’t given up on passing a budget resolution after months of internal debate about what it should contain. Yet passing a budget is increasingly a moot point; the House can consider appropriations measures after May 15 without a new spending blueprint.

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The House and Senate are running out of time to work on the 12 annual spending bills, with both chambers set to recess on July 15 for the national party conventions. The compressed schedule makes it all but inevitable that lawmakers will have to approve some sort of stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown before the elections. A larger spending package, known as an omnibus, appears likely at the end of the year.

In the meantime, some election-year mischief may be in store thanks to the freewheeling process used to consider appropriations bills in the House. Lawmakers can offer as many amendments as they want, often with little or no advance notice to their colleagues. 

While GOP leaders tout an “open” process in the name of returning to regular order, the procedure allows members of the minority party to force uncomfortable votes.

Last year’s appropriations process stalled in the House after Democrats offered amendments to limit the display of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C. The vote count for an underlying Interior Department spending bill was subsequently thrown into doubt after some GOP lawmakers, primarily from Southern states, learned about the amendments the next day after they had already passed by voice vote.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who authored an amendment limiting the flag’s display in certain national cemeteries, told The Hill that more Confederate-related amendments are in the works for this year’s spending bills.

Other Democrats may try to force votes related to the Confederate flag as well.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) moved an amendment at the same time as Huffman last year that prohibited funds for displaying or purchasing Confederate flags at facilities run by the National Park Service. 

“Rep. Jeffries is strongly exploring the possibility of reintroducing a Confederate flag amendment during the Appropriations process,” Jeffries spokesman Michael Hardaway said in an email.

GOP leaders will also have to watch for signs of trouble from their right flank. 

Republicans may be limited in the number of appropriations bills they can bring to the floor this year if conservatives balk at some of the spending levels they contain.

The first spending bill up this week, which funds the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction projects, is one of the least controversial of the 12 annual measures and appears likely to sail through the House.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus, which has led the call for lower spending levels, have indicated they will assess each appropriations bill on a case-by-case basis.

More controversial appropriations bills, like those funding the Departments of Homeland Security or Health and Human Services, have dimmer prospects for passage and may not come up at all, given the shrinking legislative calendar.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed its first appropriations bill last week, funding the Department of Energy and water infrastructure projects. Another package is on tap this week to fund the VA as well as the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Both chambers may be able to clear a handful of the spending bills to technically avoid an all-encompassing omnibus after the elections. But it’s still a far cry from the stated goals of House and Senate GOP leaders at the start of this year to pass all 12 appropriations bills — something that hasn’t been accomplished in more than two decades.

“One obvious step I would mention — it is not going to titillate the public — but one obvious step would be, for the first time since 1994, do all the appropriations bills,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) said at the GOP retreat in January.