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Because it houses so many social programs, the bill is a lightning rod for battles over social issues. And the lure of election-year messaging may make spending bills like Labor-HHS-Education a magnet for the sort of steeply divisive policy riders that have doomed such measures in the past — particularly after the rush to complete the omnibus in January locked out policy amendments, leaving many members angry. “There’s probably some pent-up frustration on the side of the Republicans because the omnibus was done behind the scenes with no amendments,” said Joel Packer, co-chairman of NDD United, a coalition group that pushes for more domestic discretionary spending.
If appropriators are serious about bringing Labor-HHS-Education to the floor this year, they may have to forge another agreement to limit policy riders, much as Mikulski and her House counterpart, Harold Rogers, R-Ky., did during the omnibus negotiations, budget watchers said.
“I think it’s the only way to get a bill like this done in an election year,” Dyer said. “The tendency in this institution is to try to force these so-called political votes.”
The broader fights over spending levels could be diffused if Rogers and Mikulski break with custom and pre-conference their top-line allocations for the 12 spending bills, known as 302(b) levels, said House appropriator Tom Cole, R-Okla.
“If we’re working off a common number, and people know that if we could just get it to conference, these conferees can really work these things out and our chances of actually moving a Labor-HHS-Education bill go way up,” Cole said.
Even if House and Senate appropriators can move the bills through their respective committees, leadership priorities will decide their fate after that. That’s particularly true in the Senate, where Democrats’ control of the chamber is at risk in the November elections.
“The question is whether the Senate majority leader wants to bring this bill to the floor and to push it through the system in an election year where his priority is probably retaining the Senate,” Dyer said of Nevada Democrat Harry Reid. “We don’t have the answer to that yet, but at the end of the day, that’ll be the core question.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said his bill could pass if leaders allow it to reach the floor.
“The Defense appropriations bill is the bill that defends America, but the Labor-HHS bill is the bill that defines America,” said Harkin, paraphrasing Daniel K. Inouye, the late Senate Appropriations chairman. “I want to define. I want to bring it out as a definition of who we are and what kind of society we are. Let’s see how much they really want to go after all these programs. I think we’ll be fine if we bring it up to the floor. We shouldn’t be afraid.”
Top appropriators are keeping their plans for the bill close to the vest. Rogers said completing a Labor-HHS-Education bill is possible but would “take a lot of work.”
“With it being an election year, it makes it more difficult,” he said.
Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, chairman of the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, put the chances of the bill’s enactment at “50-50.”