Even before GOP lawmakers filed a budget resolution conference report, Senate Democratic Conference Chairman Charles E. Schumer put down a marker.
"Republicans should be warned right here, right now, Democrats are not going to help you pass appropriations bills that lock in senseless, automatically triggered cuts that hurt the middle class," the New York Democrat said. "Instead, we'll be eager to work with our Republican colleagues to prevent those cuts from taking effect and restoring both defense spending and vital middle class funding in an even way, one dollar for defense, one dollar for the middle class."
Schumer made the statement just after rattling off a list of provisions Democrats oppose in the Republican budget blueprint, after the ink was supposed to have been dry, but before it actually was.
Since knowing he would become majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell has long prioritized returning the beleaguered appropriations process to some semblance of normalcy for the first time in years, and the Kentucky Republican didn't seem terribly startled by the idea that Democrats would seek the domestic spending increases.
"I think that's been their position for a number of years, so it's certainly not surprising. We hope to complete the budget conference report in the House and Senate, get going on the appropriations process, and we'll have plenty of disagreements over how the money is spent during the process," McConnell said. "But what I'd like to have is an amendment process that actually brings up individual bills, bring them across the floor, they're open for amendment, senators have an opportunity to make their complaints."
Getting to that stage will of course require getting the final fiscal 2016 budget resolution conference report through both the House and the Senate, something that GOP leaders were still hoping to accomplish this week, but filing was held up Monday evening.
Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, a member of the Budget Committee, told reporters Tuesday that his main objection to finalizing the fiscal 2016 budget agreement involved the weakening of his provision that would have phased out the use of certain changes in mandatory programs in order to raise discretionary spending.
He said the so-called CHIMPs were “something our caucus all had been for eliminating a year ago, so I have concerns about that."
Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray of Washington, who was chairwoman of the Budget Committee last Congress, pointed to the GOP budget-maneuvering in making a similar case to Schumer about spending levels. Republicans are using Overseas Contingency Operations funding — "war money" — to help increase defense above current limits.
"We know the sequester caps are terrible policy. The president has said he will veto any spending bills at the sequester levels, but instead of fixing this problem, Republicans seem intent on papering it over with a gimmick. Their budget wouldn't actually increase the caps on defense or non-defense spending," Murray said. "It just allows them to pretend they have more to spend on defense, while kicking the can down the road and not actually addressing the issue."
But asked if Schumer's remarks meant Senate Democrats would erect a blockade against appropriations bills without dollar-for-dollar spending increases for the middle class, Minority Leader Harry Reid did not go too far into specifics, preferring to focus on decrying recent cutbacks.
"All I know is that my caucus feels very strongly the middle class is being treated unfairly, and that if there's going to be an increase in the military, which I have no doubt they deserve and need it, so does the middle class deserve and need," Reid said. "Domestic discretionary spending ... has plummeted for a number of years now and it has to stop plummeting."
The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to begin marking up the regular spending bills for fiscal 2016 soon, though Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., declined last week to say when exactly that part of the process might get underway. As is customary, the House is somewhat ahead of the Senate on spending policy, moving through the process of getting the first bills through the chamber this week.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Office of Management and Budget has been engaged in the process a bit earlier than has been customary. In letters sent last week to House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., Director Shaun Donovan outlined specific concerns with subcommittee bills, as well as stating the administration's case on the overall appropriations picture.
"More broadly, we look forward to working with the Congress to reverse sequestration for defense and non-defense priorities, and offset the cost with commonsense spending and tax expenditure cuts, as Members of Congress from both parties have urged," Donovan wrote in one such letter.
Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.