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Senate spending talks go off the rails

Senate spending talks go off the rails
© Aaron Schwartz

Efforts in the Senate to move appropriations bills this fall got off to a rocky start on Tuesday after one committee canceled a planned markup of legislation.

Separately, Democrats expressed dismay at President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE’s move to shift previously appropriated funds at the Pentagon to pay for his wall on the Mexican border.

“Congress cannot and should not be silent when the power of the purse is undermined in this way,” Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday.

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“Why are we here? Why do we have an appropriations committee if this president can ask for money for certain purposes, we appropriate it, and then he ignores us and takes the money for his own political agenda?” he added.

With just 20 days until the new fiscal year begins, the Senate Appropriations Committee was meant to begin a belated markup process with the two largest spending bills covering the Pentagon, and the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-H).

But the Labor-H markup was abruptly canceled, as lawmakers clashed over a proposed amendment from Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition DOJ investigation into Epstein deal ends without recommended action MORE (D-Wash.) to block the Trump administration's Title X rule, which would block funds from providers that provide information about abortion.

“Women and patients across the country rely on Title X-funded health care centers for essential reproductive health care and for accurate medical advice about their health care options — which is why this program has historically had strong support from Republicans and Democrats,” Murray said.

“If Senate Republicans are more willing to listen to President Trump than women and patients in their own states, they should own up to it and be willing to let their votes show it,” she added.

Republicans said the amendment was a “poison pill,” which would violate an agreement struck over the summer to keep controversial policy riders out of the appropriations process.

“Agreement is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, how somebody defines something. They might think that’s not a poison pill, and we would deem it would be,” said Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Trump, Pelosi barrel toward final border wall showdown On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds MORE (R-Ala), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There were also disagreements on funding levels linked to the wall. 

President Trump has moved to reprogram $2.5 billion in defense funds meant to combat drug trafficking for the wall, and recently announced a plan to reprogram another $3.6 billion from military construction programs. 

Democrats argued that funds for priorities such as the Labor-H bill would be dug into to pay for the wall, or to back-fund accounts where money was redirected for the wall.

“Senate Republicans have decided to begin the appropriations process with a partisan plan to raid taxpayer dollars from health care programs, education, job training and our military to pay for an ineffective border wall that will do nothing to address the humanitarian crisis on our southern border,” said one Democratic Senate aide.

An aide to Shelby denied that the wall money was coming out of the Labor bill.

“Creating allocations for all 12 bills is more of an organic process that starts at the ‘19 enacted bill level and then moves from there based on the total increase in funding. So to say that we took money from Labor, HHS to give it to Homeland Security's is a bit of a misnomer,” the aide said.

The new problems add to the difficulties of completing an appropriations process in the Senate.

Durbin was caught on a hot mic at the committee meeting telling Shelby that he might not be able to back the measure at the full committee level. It’s customary for such measures to be passed at that level in the Senate with bipartisan support.

“I don’t want to be in a spot on Thursday where I’m doing something that breaks my heart,” Durbin could be heard telling Shelby following the defense markup.

“If there’s a way you and I can do something on this, let me know, buddy,” he added.

Shelby responded that he would take the issue to leadership.

“You know it ain’t me,” he told Durbin.

Lawmakers were already expecting to have to approve a continuing resolution before the end of the month to keep the government operating on Oct. 1.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday morning that he would force a second vote on Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall on the border. The declaration had allowed him to reprogram the military project funds.

Both the House and Senate approved bills to overturn the emergency shortly after it was declared, but could not muster the votes to overturn Trump’s veto.