Omnibus Spending Bill Lands at Last, With Oil Export Ban Lifted

The House and Senate Appropriations committees early Wednesday filed a $1.15 trillion fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would end a 40-year ban on exporting crude oil and breathe new life into an expired land conservation account.

Negotiators, however, dropped the most contentious policy issues that had tripped up spending debates in recent weeks, including provisions that would have curtailed Obama administration environmental, financial and campaign finance regulations and effectively blocked the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The bipartisan compromise (HR 2029) provides fresh line-by-line guidance to every agency under the panels’ jurisdiction through Sept. 30, 2015, and is the product of weeks of closely held and hard-fought negotiations between the two chambers and parties.

Public release of the sprawling, 2,009-page package was delayed until just after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday after party leaders spent Tuesday swapping final offers.

While Republicans announced they had arrived at a deal, there were no statements issued by House or Senate Democratic appropriators, and a senior Democratic aide said Tuesday night that the omnibus document would be reviewed line-by-line by Democrats.

GOP leaders had initially said they would adhere to the GOP’s “three-day rule,” releasing the package on Tuesday and scheduling a House final passage vote Thursday. It was unclear how the timeline might slip due to the delay. The Senate is expected to consider the legislation later in the week.

Republican leaders early Wednesday also unveiled the text of a third short-term continuing resolution that would extend temporary spending authority through Dec. 22. The current stopgap (HR 2250) expires at midnight, and both chambers must clear the measure by then to avoid a government shutdown.

Abandoned Riders

The omnibus abandons the most contentious policy riders that have sharply divided the parties in recent months, including language that would have penalized Planned Parenthood, blocked a major clean water rule from the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, lifted coordination restrictions on the national political parties and peeled back portions of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203).

Those decisions were meant to please Democrats, whose votes will be needed to carry the legislation through both chambers.

Appropriators proposed funding boosts to historic levels for such popular research agencies as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to $32 billion and $7.5 billion respectively, while largely flat-lining the coffers of divisive agencies such as the IRS and EPA.

The bill delivered the new two-chamber Republican majority notable victories by securing the end to the oil export ban – the biggest change in federal energy policy in years – and a variety of tax breaks in a companion package of extenders. The GOP was also able to block a request from Democrats to end a long-enacted restriction on gun violence research.

What was still unclear as the bill text was released was whether leaders had actually secured a bipartisan deal or what – if anything – was still up for negotiation between the parties.

Republican leaders will quick to tout the deal.

"While an end-of-the-year omnibus is not the preferred way to do business – it is always better to complete individual bills in a timely fashion – this bill will allow Congress to fulfill its constitutional duty to responsibly fund the federal government and avoid a shutdown,” House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement.

“This legislation is our best option to responsibly meet national security requirements, improve our country’s infrastructure and address other public needs. We’ve worked on a bipartisan basis to produce a bill that will make important investments to aid our economy and promote more effective and efficient government,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, notably did not immediately release statements outlining their thoughts on the overall bill, although Mikulski highlighted individual components of the deal. The White House also did not immediately weigh in on the measure.

Visa Waivers

The package does not include a House-passed measure (HR 4038) that would effectively freeze the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the United States in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, a major demand of House conservatives but anathema to the White House, which had threatened to veto the stand-alone bill.

The bill does, however, include the text of a more broadly bipartisan House-passed bill that would make changes to the visa waiver program (HR 158).

The measure also includes language that would reauthorize the 9/11 first responders’ health care program until 2090 and a related compensation fund for another five years (PL 111-347).

A rider in the financial services section would allow the Treasury to provide financial planning and other technical assistance to the government of Puerto Rico, and additional sections at the end of the bill also address the issue.

Meanwhile, the measure would reauthorize the expired Land and Water Conservation Fund for three years and allocates $450 million for fiscal 2016, a $144 million increase above the enacted level, according to a fact sheet from House Democrats.

Leaders also tacked on the text of fiscal 2016 intelligence authorization legislation (HR 4127), as well as a cybersecurity measure (S 754).  

The deal adheres to the topline spending levels codified in last month’s bipartisan budget agreement (PL 114-74), which provided a roughly 5 percent increase to fiscal 2016 discretionary spending above the post-sequester level. The omnibus would provide roughly $548.09 billion for defense-related programs and $518.49 billion for nondefense.

Lawmakers also provided nearly $74 billion in war-related Overseas Contingency Operations funding, including roughly $58.8 billion for the Pentagon and $14.9 billion for nondefense-related war funding at the Department of State.

Leaders late Tuesday also released a separate package renewing expiring tax breaks that was negotiated in tandem with the omnibus. The House is expected to debate and vote on the two measures separately, with self-executing language that would combine them for Senate consideration.

Leaders are using the House and Senate-passed stand-alone Military Construction-VA spending bill (HR 2029) as the legislative vehicle for the legislation in order to cut down on the number of procedural votes required in the Senate.

Democrats Dodge GOP Riders

The omnibus leaves Obama’s environmental agenda largely intact, including the so-called Waters of the United States rule that sought to clarify the extent of federal authority over streams and wetlands. A provision halting the rule — which is currently under a court-ordered freeze — was seen as a top Republican goal for this year’s spending cycle. The legislation also doesn’t limit the president’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

Democrats dodged Republican attempts to extend congressional authority over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and make other changes to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulations (PL 111-203). They also managed to stave off provisions targeting the National Labor Relations Board’s joint employer ruling, the Labor Department’s so-called fiduciary rule dealing with retirement advice and an FDA approval process opposed by electronic cigarette manufacturers.

A notable omission from the bill was a campaign finance measure authored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would have relaxed restrictions on coordination between political parties and candidates.

“A lot of good riders did not make it,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran appropriator and leadership ally, Tuesday evening.

Republicans did secure some policy victories in the omnibus, including a prohibition on gene editing. Other environmental riders in the legislation would block the EPA from regulating carbon emissions from livestock or the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding the greater sage grouse to the endangered species list.

Perhaps Republicans' biggest win on environmental policy is a provision that would block the administration from making regulatory changes to impede the disposal of fill material from mountaintop removal coal mining. The rider is also a personal victory for McConnell and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, both from the coal-producing state of Kentucky.

Several marijuana amendments included in individual spending titles were absent from the omnibus, including a bipartisan provision to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where medical marijuana is legal.

A provision included in the bill would exempt broadcast companies from FCC rules cracking down on sharing agreements between television stations.

The deal would also repeal the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for beef and pork products codified in the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246). The move comes weeks after the World Trade Organization ruled Canada and Mexico could impose more than $1 billion a year in tariffs on U.S. agricultural and manufactured goods in retaliation for the law.

It would also allow a year delay for small- and medium-sized businesses to comply with menu labeling requirements required as part of the 2010 healthcare law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

The omnibus extends all existing anti-abortion riders, including the Hyde amendment, which blocks Medicaid plans from covering abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest or when the health of the woman is endangered.

Funding Levels

The measure would provide a sizable increase to the NIH of $2 billion above current enacted levels, swelling the research agency’s coffers to the Senate-proposed level of $32 billion, its highest ever. But the NIH budget has seen a nearly 25 percent decline in purchasing power over the last decade, officials say.

It would keep EPA funding flat at the current level of $8.14 billion, which is roughly 9 percent higher than the spending level proposed by the House. The spending level keeps EPA staffing levels at its lowest since 1989.

The equally unpopular IRS received a 3 percent increase above current levels to $11.24 billion, part of an agreement to devote the increase to improving taxpayer services, cybersecurity, and fraud detection and prevention.

The measure provides targeted funding increases for various Justice Department programs above enacted levels, including the FBI and a “down payment” for its new headquarters, and $76 million in additional funding for Justice Department immigration courts in order to fund 55 more immigration judge teams meant to “expedite removal proceedings,” according to a committee fact sheet.

It also includes $70 million for Department of Justice programs aimed at strengthening police-community relations, including funding for body cameras for cops.

The measure provides $100 million in new funding for the Department of Homeland Security to address cybersecurity vulnerability in its IT systems, as well as a significant $359 million increase for Customs and Border Protection above current levels.

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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