Already months behind schedule, House and Senate appropriators are ready to get down to business on the next round of spending.
It won’t be easy — especially because the administration’s overdue fiscal 2020 budget proposal set to be released next week calls for double-digit spending cuts.
After last year’s unusually productive appropriations season, lawmakers scrambled to strike a deal on border security to placate President Trump’s demands for funds for a border wall with Mexico.
One record-setting partial government shutdown later, a formal conference committee struck a deal to prevent another funding lapse, buying themselves until Sept. 30.
Despite deep frustration that Trump’s border demands delayed the conclusion of doling out funds for the current fiscal year, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol said the conference committee may have solidified the bonds between appropriators.
"We worked together, we got a solution, and so starting from right now I think we can count on the same goodwill," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a top appropriator who served on the conference.
Capito said the exercise also provided an opportunity for staffers from both parties to get to know each other better.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), also a top appropriator, said the modest success of preventing another shutdown bodes well for the current spending season.
"I think it showed that once you got everybody out of the room, the players that weren’t appropriators, the appropriators got you a deal," he told E&E News last week.
"Now, was it a perfect deal? No, they’d be the first to tell you that we should have gotten more, but the point is they got something that could pass and something that the president was willing to sign."
Asked about his expectations for the upcoming spending push, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said it was a "good question."
"If we can do this, we’ll try to build on the paradigm, the structure we had, see what we can do," he told E&E News last week. "We had a good year overall last year, but we got some challenges right now."
Those challenges include preventing automatic budget cuts — known as a sequester — from kicking in Oct. 1; how to handle the annual tussling over "poison pill" riders; and dishing out billions of dollars in emergency assistance to states and U.S. territories still recovering from recent hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
The House Appropriations Committee already kicked off hearings related to fiscal 2020. This week the panel will consider tribal programs and green jobs.
The most immediate challenge is getting top-line numbers, a process that has been slowed by the delay in the White House’s annual budget submission.
"Timing is important," Shelby said last week. "We would have liked to have already gotten started. We just finished last year. We would like to get on this year coming up. We are already getting a little behind."
With the sequester scheduled to kick in, negotiations will begin in earnest on new budget caps.
Russ Vought, acting White House budget chief, said last week the administration would oppose such negotiations in an attempt to nudge Congress toward spending cuts elsewhere in the government.
Indeed, Vought said the budget would propose one of the "largest spending reductions in history." The plan would call for adding another 5 percent onto the sequester spending caps for fiscal 2020 for domestic accounts, meaning agencies like EPA and the Interior Department could face a whopping 14 percent cut.
"I don’t think there’s anybody that believes there’s any realistic chance of Democrats accepting those spending levels," said House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who added he’s had very early talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about the need for a two-year deal to ease sequester caps.
Cole predicted looming cuts would send parties to the negotiating table. Without a deal, he estimated there would be $70 billion in automatic cuts to the defense budget, with roughly $50 billion in reductions from non-defense discretionary spending from agencies such as EPA and the Interior Department.
An accord to raise the spending caps would likely happen in the context of negotiations to increase the debt limit, which will be necessary by September. Capito said appropriators are tentatively aiming to wrap up their work by June 30, "but we got to get numbers and all that."
Once spending caps are adjusted, Shelby and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) "can sit down and come up pretty quickly about what’s going to happen with the allocations for 12 bills and the appropriators can move," Cole said.
"But right now, we don’t have any discussions going on that I know about about what that number is going to be."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee, said she is relatively optimistic on that bill, discussions on which are already underway.
"Obviously, we’ve got to deal with the budget caps, but I think we’ve got a pretty good process," she told E&E News last week. "Those of us who are on the committee, we know what our assignment is, we know what we’re supposed to do."
Appropriators will also have to deal with regional pressures from lawmakers angling for their share of disaster funds.
Last week, a group of mostly Southern senators submitted their own bill to award more than $13 billion in recovery funds to various states, but other lawmakers will want to see the pot of money divided differently (E&E News, Feb. 27).
Shelby said that measure was similar to what appropriations staff have been discussing but was noncommittal about its prospects or timing.
"We’ll try to do something," he said.
Another question is how hard either party will push policy riders.
While Senate leaders stuck by a truce last year to keep such riders out of the chamber’s spending bills, it’s unclear whether the detente will continue.
Shelby said he hoped it would. "I would think the fewer riders we have on appropriations bills, the better they are," he said.
Murkowski said it was unclear how riders would be handled in the new divided Congress but credited the truce with the relative success in the Senate on appropriations last year, including passage of Interior-Environment.
But Capito said she anticipates Democrats will want to add riders to their bills, as the GOP majority did before.
"Then we’ll have to see how we deal with them here," she said. "Shelby told us no riders, we didn’t put any riders on, and we got success, so that tells you something."
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who chairs the Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said in January she hoped both sides would forgo riders in the new Congress.
"We want to produce clean bills, we want to go back to a functioning Appropriations Committee, and so I’m just very hopeful," she said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), another senior House appropriator, echoed the sentiment.
"For all these years now, we’ve looked at riders that are ideological-based more than anything else," she told E&E News in January. "So obviously, there will be a hard look at those. … My view [is] those are not the types of things that belong in appropriations bills."
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the ranking member on Energy and Water, said House Democrats may talk about eliminating all riders, but he said they really are only trying to block those offered by the GOP.
"The problem is because it’s going to be so difficult this year to legislate anything between the House and the Senate, they are going to try to put some of this stuff on appropriations bills," said Simpson, adding it was too soon to say what energy and water provisions may be in play.
Still, Cole said riders will probably not make it very far in a divided government.
"I think they probably don’t make it unless both sides agree on it," he said. "I expect there will be a lot of Democratic riders in the House bill, but they’re going to run right into the Senate."
Reporter George Cahlink contributed.