Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Bipartisan Work on Spending Bills Faces Senate Test

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Mikulski’s “minibus” for fiscal 2015 has gained bipartisan support. However, the Labor-HHS-Education measure appears stalled, possibly because Democratic leaders don’t want to force their vulnerable members to take votes related to the health care law.

With the first cluster of appropriations bills due on the Senate floor next week, Republicans must decide whether to fight now or later over spending and policy priorities.

If the GOP opts to band together and vote against the three-bill “minibus” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski plans to bring to the floor, it would effectively put an end to what’s widely been viewed as Congress’ best chance in years to pass and conference spending bills ahead of the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

The Maryland Democrat said last week that she plans to bring forward a package of spending bills that contains the Commerce-Justice-Science (S 2437), Transportation-HUD (S 2438) and Agriculture (S 2389) measures. All have emerged from Senate Appropriations in recent weeks with broad bipartisan support.

Even though most of the committee’s Republicans backed the measures, they said they disapprove of how Democrats divided more than $1 trillion in fiscal 2015 discretionary dollars between the 12 appropriations bills. They also said the allocations rely too heavily on budgetary “gimmicks” in order to meet the budget caps codified as part of the December budget deal (PL 113-67).

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the committee’s ranking Republican, has vowed to work to change the top line figures either on the Senate floor or later in the appropriations process.

Republican concerns over allocations “have to be addressed, sooner rather than later: on the floor, in conference, one way or the other,” he said recently.

Mikulski has vehemently defended her 12 top-line allocations, saying she “did not invent new tools” and that her top lines are “faithful to both the spirit of the [budget] agreement and the law itself.”

Amendment Concerns

But allocations are only one issue facing the spending bills.

Many Republican senators say they would be willing to consider the spending bills — even with the allocations they don’t like — if Democrats don’t limit floor amendments.

“We’d like a process that at least allows us to get votes on amendments,” said John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the GOP leadership team.

“As long as members are allowed to bring amendments as long as they want to, I’m certainly prepared to defend the [agriculture] portions of the bill,” said Roy Blunt of Missouri, ranking Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.

They said they don’t expect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would allow such open consideration; the Nevada Democrat has tended to control the amendment process quite tightly in recent years.

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