House Republican leaders don't want to be the first to flinch at Democrats' calls to repeal sequester-level spending caps, but senior GOP appropriators emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday in agreement: Congress has to do something.
Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., gathered his 12 subcommittee chairmen together to discuss next steps for the fiscal 2016 appropriations process that has ground to a halt on Capitol Hill with just 15 scheduled legislative days left to avert a government shutdown in September. Members and aides who attended or were knowledgable about the meeting said no decisions were made inside the room. It was primarily a chance for Rogers to get his people together and make sure everyone was on the same page.
"It was just a roundtable discussion, [an] idea discussion," Rogers told CQ Roll Call Wednesday evening.
But Rogers acknowledged that a major purpose of the meeting was to mull options for preventing passage of a full-year, stopgap funding bill, or continuing resolution, that would hinder federal agencies and erase months of painstaking work by the appropriators.
"I don’t want anybody to get the idea that we would live with a full year CR," he said.
"For us, this is what our job in Congress is: to write those bills and get them passed and move them forward for funding," said State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas. "And for us to do that, then there are certain things that have to happen and we’re all committed and we don’t want continuing resolutions."
The huddle was also one of the first signs Republican leaders are starting to face up to the reality that some sort of bipartisan deal on sequestration is inevitable. House Democrats are rebelling against sequester caps, while Senate Democrats have filibustered consideration of any appropriations bill on their chamber floor. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has threatened vetoes of every spending measure that adheres to the lower spending levels.
The question now, senior House Republican appropriators said Wednesday, was who among Republicans and Democrats is willing to make a deal.
"At some point somebody’s got to step up from both sides, House and Senate, and determine who’s going to lead this thing and negotiate and have conversations about how do we move forward," said Legislative Branch Appropriations Chairman Tom Graves, R-Ga.
That person could be Rogers, who is still getting quoted by gloating Democrats for calling sequestration "ill-conceived" back in 2013.
"I would hope that certainly subcommittee chairs would voice their concerns and opinions about what we’ve done, the work we’ve done all year in the committees," Graves said. "We’ve passed them all out of committee and this is no time to just throw all that work away.”
Senior Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Budget Committees could be key, if lawmakers agree to forge a whole new budget agreement in the mold of the bipartisan accord of December 2013 that loosened sequesters on both defense and domestic programs for two years.
That breakthrough was orchestrated by two major deal-makers, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., each of whom now oversees a different legislative portfolio.
Lawmakers aren't sure who might be able to replicate that kind of bipartisan work.
Appropriators could even conceivably take negotiations into their own hands — with leadership's blessing — and force a smaller, one-year deal, an omnibus spending agreement that technically falls under the budget caps but manufactures headroom for the Pentagon and domestic programs favored by Democrats through the off-books war account and other budget maneuvers.
"We need to follow leadership,” Rogers said.
All options would likely face significant opposition from Republican fiscal hawks.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., just a day earlier defended sequestration as "the law of the land" and reiterated higher spending levels would not be paid for through higher taxes.
That compounds the challenges appropriators face, either in plotting their next move or waiting for their cue to act.
Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said his takeaway from Wednesday's meeting was that appropriations cardinals should just "be ready to draft bills at whatever the number, whenever the time comes.
"Right now," he said, "we're just waiting."
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., the chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, said one thing was for sure: "It's imperative we move on this sooner rather than later."
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