Senators from both parties will meet this week to discuss possible changes to the upper chamber’s rules that would help smooth the path for spending bills to the floor.
There’s bipartisan support on both sides of the Capitol for restoring "regular order" to the wayward appropriations process, which has lurched along for years under a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus spending measures, as Congress has repeatedly missed the Sept. 30 deadline for funding the federal government for the next fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the weekend said sending the 12 spending bills to the president — and "not in a big clump of bills at the end" — is a top priority for the year.
"That would be noteworthy and hasn’t happened in two decades," he said Sunday on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made similar remarks during his last press conference in December, saying he’d had several conversations with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the subject.
"He wants to do appropriation bills; I want to do appropriation bills," Reid said last month. "And there’s no reason we can’t. And we’re going to do — we’re going to do them. The only issue that we have to be careful of is we have to make sure that it’s a fair process. I’m convinced that he will be fair and I will be fair."
Reid’s comments came after Senate Democrats repeatedly filibustered appropriations bills, a tactic that ultimately brought them their goal of forcing Republicans into talks for replacing the budget caps in the GOP budget.
Last fall’s budget deal enshrined spending levels not just for fiscal 2016, but also for 2017 — an arrangement that appropriators on both sides of the Capitol say bodes well for a smoother process than last year.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said she’s optimistic about this year’s spending debate because the spending levels have already been determined.
"Because we have the top line, we can get going," she told E&E Daily yesterday.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment in a recent interview.
"We’re going to start early on the appropriations bill, and hearings, and so forth," he said last week.
Part of that optimism stems from the discussions between Reid and Ryan, which reportedly included an agreement to bypass filibusters on proceeding to appropriations bills.
"As I understood it, they would not block them from coming to the floor," Simpson said of Senate Democrats. "That doesn’t mean they won’t filibuster them afterwards, but at least get them to the floor."
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said last week that he was hopeful that the conversations between Reid and Ryan would allow the appropriations process to unfold as intended.
"I preached last year until I was blue in the face that the Senate, requiring 60 votes to bring up an appropriations bill, essentially locked all of those bills away from being brought up because no one could get 60 votes," Rogers told E&E Daily late last week. "So we passed our bills on the House side, sent them over there and they just lay there, languishing. But if we can break that logjam, the Senate bringing up bills by a majority margin, that would break loose the process, I think."
A Senate Democratic aide yesterday said that Reid wants to skip the motions to proceed to spending bills but noted that the agreement with Ryan was "conditional" and would depend on "cooperation" from Republicans.
Just before the holiday recess, Reid inserted a statement into the Congressional Record outlining the "compromises" he said will be necessary to get spending bills signed into law.
"Among other things, this means that both parties will have to be part of the decision-making process from the beginning, at both the committee and leadership levels," said Reid. "This doesn’t just mean developing individual bills in a bipartisan way. It means reaching bipartisan agreements on the sequencing and packaging of legislation, so that one party’s priorities are not pursued at the expense of the other’s."
Reid also urged both parties to "resist the temptation to pursue poison pill riders that appeal to their own supporters, but that are so strongly opposed by the other party that their inclusion in appropriations bills would grind the process to a halt."
Despite the budget detente, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said yesterday that last year’s appropriations experience warrants consideration of changes to the filibuster to ensure that spending bills aren’t again waylaid.
"I think we’ve got to look at it because we’ve got to get back to regular order," Hoeven told E&E Daily of the filibuster, noting that Democrats "feel it gives them leverage, in terms of if there’s a government shutdown."
One way of doing that is by limiting the filibuster on proceeding to spending bills, while retaining the procedural roadblock for non-appropriations measures.
"We need to find a way to make sure we enforce regular order, so we take each of those bills one at a time, then we can do more to control spending and reduce the regulatory burden," Hoeven said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a senior appropriator, said yesterday that McConnell asked six GOP senators to "take a look at the Senate rules to see if we can help the Senate operate more effectively, and efficiently, and still protect minority rights."
"We have some thoughts; we have some options," Alexander said. "We’re going to talk with Republican senators, and then we’re going to talk with the Democratic leadership and Democratic senators who are interested, and then we’re going to hand it all to the Rules Committee and hope they find a consensus early in 2016."
However, Alexander signaled that Republicans would work with Democrats to see if there’s a proposal to change Senate rules by 67 votes, rather than invoking the "nuclear option" that Reid employed in 2013 to eliminate most filibusters on judicial nominees. The nuclear option allows Senate rules to be changed by a simple majority.
"My view and that of others on our working group is that we want a consensus; we’d like to find a way, working with our Democratic colleagues, a way to find 67 votes to make the Senate work more effectively while still preserving minority rights," Alexander said. "And there’s some options for doing that. One of them is better behavior."
Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said yesterday no decisions have been made, while noting that any changes would require buy-in from Democrats.
"We are going to be talking about it this week to both Democrats and Republicans and see if there is anything there," he said.
Dems open to dialogue
Key Senate Democrats reacted cautiously to the idea.
"I’ve been a consistent supporter of changing the filibuster," Mikulski said. "I’ve liked some of the approaches of Tom Udall [D-N.M.] and Tom Harkin [D-Iowa], but you can’t just do it on appropriations. But let’s see what they have to say. Right now, in an election year, caution is the byword."
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he, too, would reserve judgement until he met with Alexander today.
"I’d like to hear him out," he told E&E Daily.
Durbin said he hoped for a smoother appropriations process, which he said should be facilitated by the budget deal. But he noted there are a lot of details that need to be resolved for that to happen besides the "basic outline" of the agreement struck last year — "particularly the whole issue of riders."
"That may have more impact than actual dollar numbers," Durbin said.
Simpson acknowledged that riders would likely continue to be a stumbling block but said those issues aren’t insurmountable.
"We do those in individual bills, when you negotiate the Energy and Water bill with Lamar and Dianne, you deal with the riders then, instead of in the big context of trying to do them in an omnibus," he said, referring to Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Simpson cited another reason to be optimistic for fiscal 2017 — the November elections.
"Frankly, we want to get our job done and get home for the campaign also," he said. "So there’s incentive on both sides to get it done."
But Rogers said the lengthy campaign recesses expected in the fall may be a double-edged sword.
"Hopefully, it will spur people to do their business here in order to get home, but on the other hand, it’s going to take away a lot of days that we otherwise would be able to use to process the bills," he said.
Reporter George Cahlink