Senate Dems unveil changes to House bill funding government

Senate Democrats plan to significantly alter legislation from the House to avoid a government shutdown by tacking on three appropriations bills. 

Among other changes, their version of the continuing resolution (CR) would give the Obama administration greater flexibility to carry out this year’s $85 billion spending cut from sequestration. 

Rather than give federal agencies blanket authority to pick and choose where to spend money, the bill from Senate Democrats would enhance the “reprogramming authority” of President Obama’s Cabinet.

Agency heads would have the ability to shift their funds between programs, so long as they receive permission from appropriators in Congress. 


Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiHarris invites every female senator to dinner next week Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? Bottom line MORE (D-Md.) on Thursday said the approach addresses the concerns of lawmakers who do not want to surrender the power of the purse to the administration.

The bill would also keep in place the $1.043 trillion top-line number for overall government spending that was included in the House bill. That number is then reduced by the sequester to $984 billion.

Earlier Thursday, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (R-Ohio) publicly warned Democrats not to get “greedy” and add too many of their priorities to the spending bill.

Divisions between the chambers could prevent the passage of legislation to avert a government shutdown on March 27.

Senate Democrats said they kept “poison pills” out of their CR, and Mikulski predicted the plan would not face enough Republican opposition to precipitate a shutdown crisis.

“We are definitely not in a posture of being provocative or pugilistic, but at the same time we have our Democratic priorities,” Mikulski said. “If we were being pugilistic we would have just taken some of these bills and just jammed it.”

“We want to have a bipartisan agreement we can pass through the Senate and take to the House. And the House has done a good job of eliminating some of their poison pills as well.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden fails to break GOP 'fever' Nevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms MORE (D-Nev.) is supportive of Mikulski's effort but has not fully signed off yet, an aide said. 

Mikulski told reporters she and fellow Democrats have also greatly scaled back their ambitions to pass 12 full appropriations bills for fiscal 2013 before the March 27 deadline.

Instead, Democrats will add three of the bills to the House-passed continuing resolution, which already contained the Defense and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs titles.

Democrats will amend that bill to include funding for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Homeland Security and science agencies.

Mikulski said she fought hard to include Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation and Housing spending bills in the mix, but was told by Republicans that those measures would be too controversial.

Instead, those agencies will see smaller provisions added in the bill to shift funding from low-priority to high-priority programs.

Mikulski has negotiated the Senate approach with ranking Appropriations Republican Richard Shelby (Ala.) and said the bill is “well on its way” to the bipartisan support needed to clear a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

She plans to introduce the bill on Monday to prepare Wednesday votes.

Mikulski said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has not signed off on the plan but “knows the direction Sen. Shelby and I were going in.”

It remains to be seen how flexible the enhanced reprogramming authority will be because the legislative language has not yet been written. Mikulski said she hatched the idea on Wednesday.

Mikulski was unable to say whether the reprogramming authority would allow department heads the ability to shift funding into accounts to implement President Obama’s healthcare reform or financial sector reform. 

But she made clear that House Republican subcommittee chairmen would have to sign off on any shifts in funding.

Last week, Senate Republicans proposed a bill that would have given President Obama much more unlimited authority to manage the sequester. Most Democrats and some Republicans objected to that on the grounds that it would cede too much congressional power. 

The Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates that the 9 percent domestic and 13 percent defense cuts from sequestration must occur equally in every program, project and activity. The Mikulski approach would allow agency heads to add to key programs to cushion them from the cuts until the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1.  

After that, automatic cuts continue for 8 more years, but they are done through lower budget caps that allow appropriators to decide where the cuts will come from.

—This story was last updated at 4:52 p.m.