APPROPRIATIONS

Spending bills still moving -- to uncertain future

House and Senate appropriators are closing in on a key milestone by completing nearly all of the annual spending bills before the August recess.

With yesterday's passage of the $20.51 billion fiscal 2016 Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration, and related agencies spending bill, the Senate Appropriations panel has just one bill left -- the financial services bill -- to clear its roster, which is anticipated to happen next week (Greenwire, July 16).

Their House counterparts cleared the decks earlier this week by passing the fiscal 2016 Homeland Security measure, prompting Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) to declare that the panel "has done its job."

In another era, that might have left plenty of time for passing the bills on the floor through regular order and beat the Sept. 30 deadline that marks the end of the fiscal year.

But the conclusion to the appropriations process in the 114th Congress promises to be yet another messy affair, with a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open a near certainty.

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Senate Democrats aren't backing down from their threat to filibuster spending measures in order to force Republicans into budget talks, and the majority shows no signs of taking them up on the offer.

"There's no interest on the Republican Senate side for initiating this conversation on the Budget Control Act, which means that we are setting ourselves up for a last-minute CR at the end of September," Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told E&E Daily this week. "The alternative is shutting down the government, and I'm sure the Republicans don't want to see that happen again on their watch. So we're faced with a CR because of this refusal to sit down and talk quietly by Senate Republicans."

On the other side of the Capitol, House leaders are struggling with the spending bills due to the bizarre debacle over Confederate flag amendments that prompted leaders to pull the Interior-Environment bill from the floor last week (E&ENews PM, July 9).

"It was really quite stunning," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who as chairwoman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee has labored for years to bring that particularly difficult measure along through regular order.

She broke that streak this year by moving the bill through committee, but conceded that its prospects for floor debate are dismal.

"We haven't been able to even have an Interior approps bill come before the subcommittee for discussion," she said this week. "We made it pretty far, with the fact that we made it out of subcommittee and had a vote in full committee. But still having said that, it doesn't look entirely encouraging right now that we're going to see it on the floor."

A House leadership aide said this week that discussions continue on how to move the spending bills forward, although many lawmakers think the flag flap spells the end of regular order for this year.

Assuming a short-term CR is put in place, Congress will buy some time to try to assemble an omnibus package, which would allow appropriators to salvage their hard work by incorporating at least some of the provisions from the individual bills.

The spending stalemate also makes it tougher for Republicans to press hot-button environmental policy riders in omnibus negotiations, given that there's little way to demonstrate the levels of support in each chamber for the provisions. "It's hard," Murkowski said.

But the path to an omnibus won't be easy, either. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, signaled yesterday that Democrats aren't going to stand down from their demands to replace the sequestration cuts they so oppose in omnibus talks with Republicans.

"I can work with them, but they have to work with us," she told E&E Daily. "We're ready to work with them. I'm ready to postpone part of my August recess or whatever if we're going to get budget talks going."

She argued that the higher funding levels that Democrats have pushed in Appropriations markups would merely restore spending to 2010 levels and are perfectly reasonable.

"We're not going for lavish funding, budget busting," Mikulski said. "So the answer is that the other party is still pretty dug in. And we're looking now at the other ways to move this."

If the impasse drags on, the worst-case scenario for appropriators is a yearlong CR, which basically means months of hearings and hard work was all for naught.

"To know that we would just kind of roll into a CR without acknowledging all of the efforts that have been made is discouraging," Murkowski said. "But I'm not ready to give up on it yet. It's still only July."

Twitter: @geofkossEmail: gkoss@eenews.net

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