Mikulski: 'Poison Pill' Riders, Taxes Drag Down Omnibus Talks

The top Senate Democratic appropriator said Tuesday more than three dozen policy riders and a package of tax extenders continue to trip up omnibus negotiations that could stretch into the weekend.

Barbara A. Mikulski said “40 or 42 poison pill riders” are giving senior negotiators headaches, including provisions targeting abortion, campaign finance restrictions and a National Labor Relations Board ruling. Also causing trouble, according to the Maryland Democrat, is a package of permanent tax extenders, which she said is currently “linked” to the fiscal 2016 catchall agreement.

“We were making very good progress on resolving the money issues,” she told a small group of reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We have about 40 or 42 poison pill riders, but some are really big —  Hobby Lobby, campaign finance reform — things that should have never even been on the appropriations. So we’re kind of stuck at the riders stage.”

Mikulski described negotiations as currently in a “frozen state” and mainly between congressional leadership and the White House.

Her remarks came as House Republican leaders planned to advance a short-term continuing resolution that would stretch expiring budget authority (PL 114-53) for what they said would be a “handful” of days beyond the Friday deadline. The House Rules Committee on Tuesday passed authority through Sunday that allows leaders to quickly bring legislation directly to the floor with a two-thirds majority required for passage. Leaders in both chambers told lawmakers to plan to be in Washington this weekend to resolve outstanding legislative issues.

Outstanding Riders

Mikulski ticked off a few of the largest unresolved policy riders.

“One of the issues” still being discussed, she said, was a Republican rider attempting to undo a recent decision from the National Labor Relations Board. The August ruling redefines the board’s standard for determining joint employer status, which requires companies to participate in union negotiations and could potentially make them liable for their subcontractors' employment actions.

Mikulski also highlighted a GOP “Hobby Lobby” rider as particularly damaging. The provision, initially included by House appropriators in their fiscal 2016 Labor-HHS-Education bill (HR 3020), would provide a legal path for health providers and organizations to sue a government entity that punishes them if they refuse to provide access to abortion-related services.

Past appropriations bills (PL 113-235) have prohibited the government from discriminating against health care providers for not providing such services, but the language would provide a new legal path for organizations to sue in court.

The provision is already giving some senior Democrats heartburn.

"Just heard about it for the first time today, and if they try to do it, all hell will break loose," Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat and a senior appropriator, said of the provision. "You can imagine. The phrase 'Hobby Lobby' perks up the ears of many members of the Senate."

Campaign Finance

Mikulski also slammed a series of campaign finance riders backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The biggest would relax limits on coordination between political parties and their candidates. Progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers, as well as conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, are fighting the language. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has been leading the effort against the McConnell rider, said if enacted, the provision would allow big-money donors a new avenue — through the party committees — to give large sums to help their favored candidates.

“So the parties would become simply an apparatus of the big money crowd and lose their independence,” Sarbanes said. He added the opposition from the Freedom Caucus conservatives was generating "some attention inside the party leadership."

Supporters of the rider, including McConnell, R-Ky., argue it would help party committees keep pace with super PACs and other outside groups.

Three other campaign finance riders that are still in play would prevent the White House from requiring campaign finance disclosures by government contractors and put the brakes on a Securities and Exchange Commission effort to require public corporations to disclose their campaign finance activities. Another provision would make sure the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t issue new regulations aimed at defining political activity for nonprofit groups

Refugee, Banking Riders

Mikulski also indicated talks about how to handle Middle Eastern refugees remain unresolved.

Republican leaders are hoping to add to the omnibus the text of a bill that passed the House with a veto-proof majority before the Thanksgiving recess (HR 4038) that would require the FBI to sign off on all refugee resettlement applications from Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, which his administration has described as “untenable.”

“I think the Republicans have to come to grips with how they want to address these issues. We feel that really hardening the visa waiver program is a far superior thing to do to protect the nation than going after 9-year-olds,” Mikulski said.

Mikulski also indicated provisions from a banking bill (S 1484) that was attached to the Senate fiscal 2016 Financial Services spending measure (S 1910) by senior appropriator and Banking Chairman Richard C. Shelby are also still in play.

“Senator Shelby’s thinking looms large,” she said.

Senior Republican appropriators have indicated they expect parts of the 236-page add-on, which targets major portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203), to make it into the final compromise.

A major focus has been on raising the asset threshold that deems a bank a "systematically important financial institution," a status that subjects it to more oversight and increased capital and liquidity requirements.

Democrats took flak from the left for accepting a rider in last year’s fiscal 2015 omnibus (PL 113-235) that undid a portion of Dodd-Frank in exchange for the GOP dropping a handful of other policy provisions and spending cuts.

When asked about whether Democrats would have to undertake a similar agreement this year, Mikulski replied: “I don’t know what we’ll take. I want to know what [Republicans are] going to take off, not what am I going to take.”

Melanie Zanona, Kate Ackley, Sarah Chacko, Niels Lesniewski and George Cahlink contributed to this report. 

 

A reference to House Rules Committee action is clarified.

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