An ambitious Senate push to pass all 12 fiscal 2017 appropriations bills this year ran into its first significant hurdle yesterday when the energy and water spending bill stalled over an amendment related to the Iran nuclear deal.
"It's early, but it's not a good sign," said senior appropriator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) after the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the $37.5 billion energy-water bill, the first appropriations measure to reach the floor in either chamber this year.
Invoking cloture -- which requires 60 votes -- would have likely led to quick passage. But for now, the energy bill and subsequent spending measures remain in limbo as Senate leaders try to find a way to move ahead.
The energy spending bill is generally among the least controversial. So if it faces resistance, that means more contentious bills, like one to fund the Interior Department and U.S. EPA, could run into even greater opposition.
Indeed, a failure on energy-water may mean the entire appropriations process is again off track and that Congress is headed for another series of stopgap funding measures and massive year-end spending deals.
In a sign of the holdup's broader impact, the Senate yesterday evening scrapped a procedural vote to move forward with legislation to fund transportation programs. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had set the vote earlier in the week assuming lawmakers were about the finish work on the energy bill.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) confirmed yesterday that discussions continued on reviving the energy-water bill but said the failed cloture vote didn't portend well for efforts to rein in the wayward appropriations process.
"I hope it's a temporary glitch because, I mean, if we can't get this appropriation bill done, it doesn't bode well for the future, and I think there seemed to be a bipartisan agreement that we need to get our work done on these appropriations bills and avoid a year-end omnibus appropriation," he told E&E Daily. "I'm still hopeful we can work out those differences."
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, also acknowledged that talks continue, "but there has to be a will. And our agreement has no poison pill riders."
In recent years, partisan disputes over policy riders and spending levels have kept Congress from sending the president many individual spending bills.
Senate leaders hoped this year would be different after reaching a bipartisan deal to raise overall discretionary spending to $1.07 trillion for fiscal 2017.
Both parties agreed to move bills to the floor if they stayed within the spending limits. They also agreed to avoid contentious riders in committee and hash out policy disputes on the floor.
The energy-water spending bill seemed on track to become one of the earliest appropriations measures to pass the Senate since the modern budget process began four decades ago. However, the late emergence of the amendment related to the Iran nuclear deal scuttled that goal.
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on Monday proposed a ban for the Department of Energy from buying heavy water from Iran. The administration announced over the weekend plans to buy 32 tons of the heavy water, used in nuclear reactors, as permitted under the nuclear deal.
The White House quickly came out against the amendment and threatened to veto any spending bill with it. Presidential aides see the proposal as the latest attempt by Republicans to undermine their hard-won Iran deal. The GOP says the amendment is germane to the spending bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said the amendment was aimed at reversing nonproliferation efforts under the deal and pleaded with Cotton to withdraw it.
She asked, "Why can't we have the ability to do one bill that doesn't have a poison pill on it to set an example for future bills? This was the bill that was supposed to do that. Why can't a member see this?"
Cotton insisted he too was interested in moving spending bills. He noted he had offered to modify his amendment in several ways and set a 60-vote threshold for adopting to end the standoff, but Democrats rejected those approaches.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he believes the energy bill provides an "easy target" but predicted leaders would eventually find a way around the Iran provision and the appropriations process would not slip off track over "poison pills."
However, a GOP aide cried foul and noted that Democrats did not balk over other contentious riders during last week's vote on an amendment by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) that would have barred funding for the joint EPA-Army Corps of Engineers rule defining the reach of the Clean Water Act (Greenwire, April 21).
Hoeven, who has long advocated for allowing floor votes on disputed appropriations riders, reiterated the call yesterday.
"It's got to be bipartisan to pass," he said in an interview. "You get consent at 60, and you vote, and it's not going to move unless you get 60 votes. And frankly, with a lot of them if the president vetoes, you've got to have 67."
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a member of Appropriations, said yesterday that Senate Democrats were carrying the president's "heavy water" on the Cotton amendment. "They don't want a vote that looks like they're soft on Iran," he said. "Just to protect the president from being embarrassed."
Appropriator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she was disappointed by yesterday's snag. "I thought we were moving along in good faith and relatively quickly," she said in an interview. "We've all worked too hard to try to get it to this point. We've moved four bills out unanimously, or close to unanimous, so I hope it's a temporary setback."