Senate returns to work on toughest 'minibus' yet

Senate returns to work on toughest 'minibus' yet
© Greg Nash

The Senate on Thursday is set to begin debate on a bill combining the two largest appropriations measures, testing a bipartisan agreement by leaders of both parties to keep the process free of controversial policy riders.

The bill will include appropriations for both Defense and for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

The combined bills amount to roughly 60 percent of the entire 2019 appropriations, which is expected to total more than $1.3 trillion. It will be the first time the Senate has even taken up the Labor bill on the floor since 2007.

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But it will be a tough test for Senate leadership to keep the appropriations process on track as senators consider controversial amendments related to abortion, education policy and child detention centers. 

Leadership is hoping to tamp down any inflammatory amendments that could derail the process.

“Labor-H tends to be a bit more politicizing, but we’re hoping that we can run the same playbook that we have in the last approps bills,” said a Democratic Senate aide, referring to the relatively smooth passage of the first seven of 12 appropriations bills this summer.

“The Senate Appropriations Committee has worked really hard this year to make sure that there aren’t any of the big political fights that usually get pulled into these. The goal is not to get too overloaded with amendments,” the aide continued.

Senators point to the House’s appropriations bills as an example of what to avoid. 

“They are taking up partisan bills filled with poison pill riders that cannot and will not pass the Senate,” said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDem senator praises Ford opening the door to testifying Ford opens door to testifying next week Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh MORE (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, after voting to send the Labor bill to the floor. 

“If our progress is to continue, the bills that come out of conference must be bills that can pass the Senate, which means they must also be free of poison pills,” he added.

Specifically, there is concern that some senators will try to pass similar policy riders to those that made their way into the House version of the bills, such as limitations on abortion and scrapping funding linked to the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans shot down Democratic attempts to include provisions on gun safety research and additional funding for education and worker training.

The differences between the two chambers' bills are a looming issue that will eventually need to be reconciled before being sent to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s desk.

The House has not taken up the Labor bill on the floor, but passed the Defense bill earlier in the summer.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.) said he hopes to get nine of the 12 appropriations bills through conference and signed into law before Sept. 30, the final day of fiscal 2018.

Any agencies that Congress has not succeeded in funding by then will shut down unless Congress passes a stopgap measure to extend current levels of funding.

While both chambers have moved to advance spending bills, the chambers have yet to work out any differences between the bills. The conference meeting to iron differences on the first “minibus” package of three spending bills was canceled in early July over disagreements on how to fund a veteran’s health program, and has yet to be rescheduled.

Another wild card in the mix is Trump, who has threatened to shut down the government if he does not receive adequate funding for his border wall. GOP leaders have implored the president to postpone a showdown until after November midterm elections.

The bill addressing border wall funding is among the three spending bills Congress intends to punt on until after the start of the new fiscal year.

But even if Congress only manages to work out differences on the Defense and Labor bills, it will have funded a significant portion of the government and shielded those departments from a shutdown.

The Defense bill provides a total of $675 billion in funding, including $67.9 billion in spending not covered by budget caps. It includes funds to sustain a military pay raise and anticipated a civilian pay raise as well, and funds new defense research and military upgrades.

The Labor bill includes $181.2 billion in discretionary budget authority including $2 billion in cap adjustments from mandatory spending. It includes funding for biomedical research, opioid treatment, public health, child care and early education.