A tight calendar, flat funding and policy differences could complicate an ambitious Senate Republican goal of passing individual fiscal 2017 spending bills this year.
Senate Republican leaders sought to ease the path this week by saying they would follow a budget agreement last fall that set fiscal 2017 discretionary spending at $1.07 trillion. The House has not yet agreed to the spending level and that could cloud chances of getting any spending bills signed into law.
Still, Senate GOP leaders believe sticking to the bipartisan funding level gives them their best shot in years for advancing the bills rather than relying on a year-end omnibus agreement to fund government. They have said the stand-alone measures are their best options for taking on administration policy and showing Congress can function properly.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), an appropriator, said this week Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairmen have been told they will get their discretionary funding allotments, known as 302(b) allocations, by April 15.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a senior appropriator, said having the allocations next month could allow for an early start in an election year with limited legislative days.
"What everybody would like to do is go forward as quickly as possible because we are simply running out of calendar days to get these things done," said Boozman, citing the coming political conventions and the fall campaigns. Congress is currently scheduled to be on recess from July 16 to just after Labor Day.
Without bills in place, stopgap funding would need to be in place by Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins, to avoid a government shutdown.
The top Democratic appropriator, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, said she too is expecting allocations when the Senate returns from spring recess the week of April 11. She noted Senate appropriators already have had 50 budget hearings and the committee could move spending bills by the end of April.
"We want to stick to the budget agreement," Mikulski said.
While the deal sets the overall spending goal, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is responsible for dividing up the $1.017 trillion among the 12 annual spending bills and assigning top-line figures to the subcommittee leaders to further divvy up. Cochran declined comment.
Balancing spending and riders
While moving bills might show Congress can act, the measures will not contain much in the way of new spending that appropriators typically tout in election years and can help move bills.
The budget deal allows for a $3 billion increase over current spending, but $30 billion more than what had originally been called for under strict spending caps that the accord rescinded for fiscal 2016 and 2017.
"Governing is about setting priorities, and given our current fiscal constraints -- especially on non-defense spending -- we are going to have to make some hard decisions this year to make sure the highest priorities are funded," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said at a hearing earlier this week.
Alexander noted the Obama administration wants a nearly $3 billion increase for the Energy Department alone for fiscal 2017. He did not specifically comment on the pending allocation, but there's no expectation it would meet the administration's request -- which would match the entire increase called for in all 12 spending bills, under the budget agreement.
Alexander said his bill that funds the Energy Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and federal nuclear programs could move to the floor "pretty easily." But, he said, the key would be keeping off policy riders unless they have the 60 votes needed to overcome Democratic opposition.
Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, conceded her bill has been a magnet for riders in the past and would likely be again.
Republicans in particular have used the bill that funds the Interior Department, U.S. EPA and several lands agencies to try to block administration environmental and land-use policies. In recent years, those attempts have prevented the bill from leaving committee.
Asked if a push to move bills would force her to limit riders this year, Murkowski said, "We have had riders in appropriations bills for as long as we have had appropriations bills."
Boozman said there will still be riders this year on the spending bills but suggested they might be considered on the floor rather than in committee. He said that would at least allow largely bipartisan spending bills to make it to the floor, where riders could then be offered as amendments.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who leads the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the United Nations' green programs, said his panel would make the "best of it" with limited funds.
He did not rule out riders but said his "main goal is run the Senate like it should be run" by avoiding controversial add-ons.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the floor this week to urge Congress to pass individual spending bills rather than hastily cobbling together a year-end spending omnibus.
The senator said he was building support among more junior GOP senators to reject future spending catchalls that have become commonplace over the last decade.
An omnibus "is not the way to do business. That doesn't inspire any confidence in us on the part of the American people, and it is disgraceful," said McCain, the Senate Armed Services chairman. He said the year-end bills have allowed senior appropriators to add hundreds of millions of dollars for authorized Pentagon spending and other programs because most lawmakers have little time to review them.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior appropriator and frequent critic of McCain's over unauthorized spending, scoffed at the Arizona lawmaker's criticism and dismissed his threat to block future omnibuses.
"That's nothing new. Senator McCain is not a fan of appropriators and, of course, a lot of people aren't fans of Senator McCain," Shelby added.
Reporter Geof Koss contributed.