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 TrumpOvernight Health Care: US hits 10,000 coronavirus deaths | Trump touts 'friendly' talk with Biden on response | Trump dismisses report on hospital shortages as 'just wrong' | Cuomo sees possible signs of curve flattening in NY We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Barr tells prosecutors to consider coronavirus risk when determining bail: report 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday.

“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 MurrayTrump administration issues guidance scaling back paid leave requirement for small business employees Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday Senate Democrats propose canceling student loan payments during coronavirus 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 ShelbyFive things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Coronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer names coronavirus czar candidates in plea to White House Democrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus Schumer: Fired inspector general will be remembered as a 'hero' 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.