BALTIMORE — Amid broad discussions of the economy, national security and poverty, Republicans who gathered here Thursday for their annual retreat seem most excited about the mundane task of funding the government.
That's because Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has set a lofty goal of passing all 12 individual spending bills out of the House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has expressed hope, though not confidence, that the Senate might, too.
"Even though the guy in the White House is not somebody we can [work with to] do the kind of broad reforms that we'd like to achieve, there are steps in the right direction we can take," McConnell said. "One obvious step I would mention — it's not going to titillate the public — but one obvious step would be for the first time since 1994 would do all the appropriations bills."
The last time Congress accomplished that Bill Clinton was president. O.J. Simpson was awaiting trial on murder charges. And Ryan was writing speeches for Rep. Jack Kemp and others. In the years since then, Congress has passed some but not all appropriation bills and relied on omnibus spending measures and continuing resolutions to keep the government running.
McConnell and Ryan said the process should be somewhat easier this year, because a budget deal reached in October 2015 set a top-line dollar figure for fiscal 2017 spending. But riders and amendments from both parties can quickly complicate the process, which is why the leaders are making no guarantees.
"I don’t know where the appropriations bills ultimately go on the floor because we’re going to let members have their amendments, have their votes," Ryan said. "That’s OK, and that’s the system we think we ought to have.”
McConnell agreed that an open amendment process, which is also the goal in the Senate, “presents the opportunity for troublesome proposals from both sides.”
The main obstacle to the Senate's appropriations debate last year was Democrats' objections to bills that set to spending levels to the restrictive sequestration caps, a problem that the budget deal resolves. "The Democrats can block that possibility in the Senate this year," McConnell added, but "they're at least saying the right things."
Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said that he hopes to work together on "a thoroughly bipartisan process focused on governing, not a partisan process focused on scoring political points.”
The House was on track to pass all 12 bills last year until a Confederate flag amendment derailed the process. The amendment, allowing the flag's imagery to appear on graves on some federal land, created a furor on the floor. Rather than vote on the measure, GOP leaders pulled the Interior-Environment spending bill and abandoned the appropriations process.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted that the flag and any other issues raised in amendments would not spoil this year's effort. "There will not be an issue that stops the approps process from moving through," he said.
House members seem inspired by Ryan's dedication to passing appropriations bills through regular order, but they say they have realistic expectations about how far that process will go.
"If we pass an appropriations bill, the president is probably going to veto it anyway, and so how do you overcome that?" asked Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. Even so, Duncan supports sending appropriations bills to the president's desk: "I think it helps show American what we believe in and how we would govern going forward."
Duncan said the Senate needs to work harder to get appropriations bills done, but other House members aren't confident that will happen.
"We’re not equal chambers," Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, said. "The House gets a lot more done than the Senate."
One of the other obstacles to completing all 12 appropriations bills is the legislative calendar. Both chambers will adjourn in mid-July for the presidential nominating conventions followed by their traditional August recess, meaning they'll only have a few weeks in September to wrap up any spending bills for fiscal year 2017, which begins Oct. 1.
In an effort to help move the process along, the House will craft its budget resolution "at least a month early," Ryan said. "We’ll try to have the budget off the floor that first week of March," McCarthy added.
The Senate will likely consider a budget resolution, but leaders aren't promising the outcome of that. "We will work with our members to get at least 51 to vote for that budget," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "I can’t guarantee anything, but I can tell you we’re going to give it our best.”
House appropriators have begun listening sessions to gather input for the 12 spending bills, a process they hope will limit amendments on the floor.
"I’m already talking to appropriators trying to get things in the base text of the appropriations process, so I don’t have to offer amendments," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said, acknowledging that his priorities have a lower chance of being included if brought up through amendments.
Still, the appropriations bills passed out of committee will be largely partisan, so Democrats will want to use the open amendment process Ryan is promising to bring their priorities to the floor.
"I have to believe that the Democrats are going to come in now that we seem to be unified and behind the new speaker and working on regular order — and they’re going to try these tricks," Weber said.
As long as Ryan makes a "concerted effort" to get the bills through, members will likely be happy, added Weber, who is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
"Will we get all 12 approps bills? Will we get that much done?" he asked. "I don’t know. I hope so.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.
Contact McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @lindsemcpherson. Correction 10:39 a.m. A previous version of this article misstated McConnell's title in the Senate. He is the majority leader.
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