Congress faces September scramble on spending
Congress is facing a September scramble as it returns to Washington ahead of an end-of-the-month deadline to avoid a government shutdown.
Lawmakers get back to the Capitol on Tuesday, giving them just a matter of weeks to clear spending legislation while also juggling other high-profile fights like the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Senators, who stayed in Washington instead of taking their usual August recess, have made quick work of their funding packages, passing nine out of the 12 individual appropriations bills.
But lawmakers still need to get a deal on the three spending packages they have not cleared so far, a challenge that will require them to defuse partisan policy riders included in the House bills.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged that while lawmakers and staffs have been talking throughout August, they haven’t “resolved anything.” He said they needed to meet face-to-face with returning House lawmakers.
“We need the House to get back where we can start talking to each other personally,” he said when asked about getting the bills conferenced by the deadline. “That’s our goal. We’ve got a month. If the House cooperates, we can work together.”
So far, the House and Senate have failed to sort out in conference any of the differences in their bills. The two chambers have not yet agreed upon final top-line numbers for each of the 12 bills, which will be necessary before sending any of them to President Trump’s desk.
Lawmakers will need to navigate a series of political landmines in the House bills, where Republicans inserted controversial, partisan provisions.
In the Senate, an agreement between Shelby and appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to keep partisan “poison pills” and authorizing language out of the appropriations process held strong, allowing the upper chamber to push legislation ahead.
House Republicans, on the other hand, used their bills to take aim at ObamaCare and abortion with measures that are non-starters in the Senate, where Democratic support is needed to fund the government.
Senators pigeonholed an amendment from GOP Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) that would have prevented D.C. from establishing its own individual mandate for health insurance. The House included a similar provision in their Financial Services bill, which funds the District.
The upper chamber also rejected an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have stripped Planned Parenthood of federal funding in legislation funding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The House included such a provision in its committee-passed HHS bill.
GOP leaders in the two chambers are on the same page though when it comes to one issue. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have indicated they want to punt on funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until after the midterm elections to avoid a potentially explosive fight over funding for Trump’s border wall.
But the contentious issue looms over the broader funding bill. Trump has threatened to veto spending legislation that doesn’t fund his signature policy. Democrats have held out the prospect of wall funding as part of a broader immigration deal, and are unlikely to lend their support without getting a significant concession in return.
In addition to border wall funding, a DHS bill would also act as a lightning rod for a larger fight over Trump’s other immigration policies.
To circumvent the issue and avoid a politically risky shutdown just one month ahead of November’s election, lawmakers are separating DHS funding from spending for the rest of the government.
Both chambers are far apart though on their numbers. The Senate’s DHS bill includes $1.6 billion for border barriers, while the House bill includes $5 billion.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a recent trip to the border underscored the need for a “wall system” and that lawmakers are now in “heavy talks” about how much money to include.
“Right now, technically we have $1.6 billion in our bill. … [Trump’s] now asking for $5 billion this year,” Capito told a West Virginia radio station this week. “We’re trying to find the money, that’s not easy.”
Beyond policy riders, disagreements remain over key questions such as whether to bypass agreed-upon spending caps in funding a veteran’s health program.
Even if Congress sends the nine bills to Trump’s desk, lawmakers will need a continuing resolution (CR) to fund those parts of the government addressed in the remaining bills past the end of September. The stopgap is likely to go into December but leadership hasn’t yet worked out the details of a short-term bill.
“I’m sure we’ll have something like that but right now our goal is to pass a substantial number of the bills,” Shelby said when asked about the need for a short-term bill to fund part of the government until late December.
Senators are hoping to limit the short-term bill to the three bills that the chamber has not yet taken up: Department of Homeland Security; Commerce, Science and Justice; and a bill for State and Foreign Operations.
But that package could swell if they are unable to get an agreement with the House on already passed legislation.
“We won’t get them all done, but I think it’s realistic to get a number between five and nine over the finish line,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an appropriator. Others have privately floated that as few as three bills could get through.
Shelby said that senators were trying to avoid a larger CR, and that it boiled down to what sort of agreement they could get from the House.
“If the House works with us expeditiously,” he said. “We will fund most of the government. If they don’t then we will reach an impasse.”
Ryan, who is retiring at the end of the year, faces additional pressure from within his own ranks. Passing large spending bills with the support of Democrats is sure to rile House conservatives, who are already jockeying over who will lead their caucus in the next Congress.
Trump has created another roadblock for Republicans. Earlier this year, amid backlash from his base, the president threatened to veto the omnibus legislation that combined all 12 spending bills for 2018 into one. He told lawmakers he wouldn’t sign a similar piece of legislation again.
McConnell put a premium on passing smaller packages, which roll a few bills into one piece of legislation, by devoting weeks of Senate floor time to getting the funding measures cleared in the chamber. Republicans are fighting for their political lives in November and are eager to show they can govern.
“This is about omnibus prevention, about actually demonstrating to the American people that we can do what we’re supposed to do on time,” McConnell told reporters at a weekly leadership press conference.
He added that the Senate has now passed legislation funding roughly 90 percent of the government and if they are able to conference their bills with the House before the end of September that could resonate with voters before the midterms.
“I think it’s an important step forward, and ought to reassure the American people that the Congress is in good hands, which we know that they’ll have something to say about the first Tuesday in November,” he said.
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