Policy

House Passes ‘Minibus’ Over Democratic Objections

Sen. Shelby: ‘The sooner the better’

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., says he hopes the Senate considers appropriations measures sooner than later. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House passed a roughly $147 billion three-bill fiscal 2019 spending package on a partisan 235-179 vote Friday, overcoming Democratic objections to environmental policy riders and funding priorities in the GOP-drafted Energy-Water title.

The “minibus,” which also carries the Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch measures, is the first of what House GOP leaders expect to be a series of three-bill packages to try to expedite passage of at least a few of the 12 annual spending bills before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

On final passage 16 Republicans crossed the aisle to vote “no” on the package, but the defections were outweighed by 23 Democratic votes for the minibus.

It’s unclear what the Senate’s timetable is, however, as that chamber’s Appropriations Committee won’t take up their not-yet-introduced Legislative Branch version until next week. The Senate floor schedule is expected to be jammed with consideration of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill next week as well.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., couldn’t say when appropriations bills would reach the floor in that chamber.

“Soon, but I don’t know how you define soon ... The sooner the better. We are trying to get them through the committee to the floor and go from there,” Shelby said. “The more we get up there, the quicker we can do it. We are trying to work together, trying to keep a lot of riders off. We are doing OK at this point, but we want to keep moving. We are ready to go.“  

The three bills processed by the House are among those GOP leaders consider prime candidates to get to President Donald Trump’s desk before the Sept. 30 deadline, thus breaking the recent streak of mega-spending bills, called “omnibuses,” encompassing all 12 of the measures or close to it. Trump has said he won’t sign another last-minute omnibus bill, after the 2,200-page $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus enacted in March that cleared Congress within two days of its introduction. 

But there are plenty of reasons to believe House-Senate negotiations won’t be quick and easy even on the three measures passed by the House Friday.

One area of contention is veterans health care. After adding $1.1 billion during floor debate, the House bill would provide $86.4 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, matching levels approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee this week in their version of the Military Construction-VA bill.  But senators on both sides of the aisle agree more money is needed to pay for the overhaul of private medical care alternatives for veterans who can’t readily access services they need at VA facilities signed into law this week.

Senators want to exempt the added veterans health care funds from fiscal 2019 budget caps enacted in February, but the White House and House Republicans want to remain under the limits by cutting from other accounts.

House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he didn’t know where the extra money for veterans would come from, but that lawmakers would find a way. “Over a budget this large, we can find the dollars, but every [Appropriations subcommittee chairman] would tell you why they shouldn’t be from his allocations. I’ve been rehearsing my speech,” Cole said. “But in the end we can get there.”

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Another major difference between the chambers will be language in the Senate Military Construction-VA bill that would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana for veterans in states where it’s legal, addressed in an amendment incorporated into the Senate measure at Thursday’s markup.

Energy-Water fights ahead 

Perhaps the most contentious debate ahead between the House and Senate will be over the Energy-Water title. In the House, the fiscal 2019 appropriations bill would dedicate $44.7 billion to agencies under its purview, including $35.5 billion for the Department of Energy, $7.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, and $1.6 billion for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation.

House lawmakers want more money for nuclear weapon modernization efforts while introducing cuts to renewable energy research. It also would set aside funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada and continue funding for the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina. The House bill includes controversial policy riders meant to ease the repeal of the EPA-Army Corps joint “Waters of the United States” regulation. Democrats have called the measure a “poison pill” unlikely to survive Senate scrutiny.

But the House’s priorities differ markedly from the Senate, where the Appropriations Committee approved its Energy-Water bill on a 30-1 vote. The Senate’s legislation (S 2975) would fund the same agencies at $43.8 billion, but direct more money to accounts favored by Democrats. DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would see $2.3 billion, equal to fiscal 2018 and $200 million more than the House version. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, would get $375 million, $22 million more than last year and $50 million more than the House.

The Senate would also allocate funding for an interim storage approach to commercial nuclear waste, avoiding Yucca Mountain. It would also endorse a DOE strategy to abandoned the MOX facility in South Carolina in favor of a “dilute and dispose” approach to 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium resulting from a nuclear arms disarmament agreement. 

Previous years’ negotiations have resulted in a standstill in nuclear waste policy — something likely to occur again this year. 

Amendment debate

Lawmakers plowed through nearly 80 amendments made in order on the three-title bill, and adopted more than 35 of those. 

A number of the potential changes were relatively uncontroversial and many were withdrawn. But some highlights of the amendment debate, which stretched late into Thursday night, include:

  • The House adopted, by voice vote, an amendment from Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., that would prohibit funds appropriated to the Legislative Branch to be used to purchase plastic drinking straws.
  • There was heated debate Thursday over an amendment from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., that employed what’s known as the “Holman Rule,” recently reinstated by House leaders, that allows members to target individual federal employee salaries. Gosar wanted to cut the salary of the administrator of the Western Area Power Administration, Mark Gabriel, to $1, which lawmakers rejected 139-276.
  • Following the addition of $1.14 billion for the new VA law regarding private care access sanctioned by House leaders, the House adopted by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., that would increase funding for Veterans Health Administration medical services by $8 million and would decrease by the same amount funding for community care — the account which funds medical care outside VA facilities.

Legislative branch details

The House’s Legislative Branch bill, which saw little debate on the floor as lawmakers were mostly supportive, would provide $3.8 billion in discretionary spending for the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol Police and various legislative agencies for fiscal 2019, $132 million more than the fiscal 2018 enacted level.

That includes a 7 percent increase for Capitol Police over enacted 2018 levels, to $456.4 million; a 9 percent increase for the Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace safety and anti-harassment training and response, to $5.4 million; and $147.6 million for the House chief administrative officer, will support the House’s effort to respond to pervasive sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. 

The Legislative Branch measure’s full spending allocation, which accounts for Senate-specific items that chamber will add later, comes to $4.88 billion.

The largest piece of the minibus, the Military Construction-VA measure, would provide $98 billion in fiscal 2019 discretionary funding overall. That figure includes the $1.1 billion added for VA health care, as well as $921 million for spending cap-exempt Overseas Contingency Operations funds for military construction projects to help position U.S. troops stationed in Europe to defend allies against potential threats from Russia. The combined measure would provide $5.3 billion more, or a 5.7 percent boost, for programs funded in the Military Construction-VA title above the current fiscal year.

Andrew Siddons, Morgan Cahn and Jacob Holzman contributed to this report. 

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