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Cooperation a Distant Goal for One Spending Bill

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Harkin, center, chairman of the related subcommittee, said the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill could pass if leaders allow it to reach the floor.

As appropriators try to build on the accord they reached in the $1.1 trillion omnibus while working on fiscal 2015 spending plans, some observers already are questioning whether the largest nondefense spending bill, Labor-HHS-Education, can be completed as a stand-alone measure in a steeply divided Congress.

“That’s the tripwire,” said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “I think you can get almost every other bill passed except that one.”

The measure, set at $158 billion in the current fiscal year, is a stark example of the chasm between the parties on social issues. It funds the programs that are anathema for Republicans but bread-and-butter for Democrats, including public broadcasting, labor initiatives and, most prominently, portions of the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

The divide between the parties has made the bill more of a blueprint for lawmakers’ strict policy priorities than a vehicle to enact funding; during the fiscal 2014 appropriations cycle, House and Senate appropriators worked using top lines for the measure that were more than $40 billion apart.

That divisive history is what made the inclusion of a fully formed Labor-HHS-Education measure in the omnibus (PL 113-76) all the more surprising.

Top appropriators, including Senate panel Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., say they want to get the measure enacted this year — for just the third time since 2002 — under a more normalized process.

But that will be a “tough slog,” said Jim Dyer, a former GOP staff director for the House Appropriations Committee who is now at the Podesta Group. “There’s enough stuff in there to discourage anybody,” he said.

The challenges facing the bill start with funding levels. The December budget agreement (PL 113-67) set aside $492.5 billion for domestic programs, but the Labor-HHS-Education title must compete with other domestic priorities.

Republicans will try to funnel money to items such as homeland security and weapons programs at the Department of Energy, while Democrats will move to protect President Barack Obama’s domestic priorities such as early childhood education and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203).

Labor-HHS-Education programs have lost the funding battle in recent years and the bill’s many social programs may fall behind again in fiscal 2015, according to Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, ranking Democrat on the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “We just keep lowering the standards,” she said, pointing to numbers going back to 2010.

But the funding levels aren’t really the major problem with what lawmakers call “Labor-H.”

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