Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to finish the year’s spending negotiations with a series of small appropriations packages known as minibuses. But a short legislative calendar, a lack of preparation, and Democratic concerns about the piecemeal approach make that goal a difficult one to achieve.
If the Republican leaders’ minibus dreams do not come true and Congress instead passes a massive omnibus appropriations measure — or even worse, another continuing resolution — it would be a pitiful bookend to a year in which Ryan and McConnell had listed restoring regular order to the appropriations process as the No. 1 item on their to-do list.
The GOP leaders told reporters after a House and Senate Republican retreat in January that they hoped to pass all 12 appropriations bills individually for the first time in more than two decades.
While the prospects of them meeting such a high bar were always low, even some of the biggest skeptics could not have predicted where they’d end up: The House passed just five appropriations bills while the Senate mustered through only two.
Struggling to salvage a part of that initial goal — avoiding a massive omnibus bill like the unpopular one Congress passed last December — Ryan and McConnell have their sights set on minibuses. But they’ve got a tough road ahead.
When Congress returns after the November election, they are scheduled to be in session for three weeks — a total of just 12 legislative days — before the Dec. 9 government funding deadline that lawmakers set with a continuing resolution they passed last month. They have 11 appropriations bills left to get to the president’s desk to avoid another CR for those agencies.
Ryan acknowledged the “brief time” that Congress will have in the lame-duck session, telling reporters before leaving for the October campaign break that appropriators will spend the recess working on the bills.
But there’s only so much appropriations staff and members can negotiate during recess. Key talks on spending deals always take place once leaders are back in Washington. For the minibus strategy to work, leaders can’t wait until days before the deadline to reach an agreement, like they did with the CR.
“The longer this drags out the more likely that this will end up in an omnibus rather than a series of minibuses,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Though the Pennsylvania Republican can rest a bit easier knowing that his bill is complete — the military construction and veterans affairs spending bill that falls under his subcommittee’s jurisdiction was signed into law as part of the CR.
Lack of preparation
Appropriators would likely be better prepared to finalize the spending bills if the House and Senate had passed more of them. Bringing bills up on the floor allows members who are not on the Appropriations committees to learn about what’s in them, and spurs open debate on thorny issues. Amendment votes reveal where support lies, making it easier to argue the strengths or weaknesses of partisan riders.
“There’s no substitute for actually moving bills across the floor,” said Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, the appropriator in charge of the always-controversial Labor-HHS-Education bill. “And it strengthens your hand in a negotiation as well.”
The House had time in September to bring more appropriations measures to the floor, and in July, Ryan said that is what they had planned to do. But ultimately, House Republicans opted to spend their time on mostly election-year messaging bills.
“The reason they haven’t brought five of their appropriation bills to the floor is because they don’t know whether their guys will vote for it, and they are not prepared to do nonpartisan, bipartisan constructive appropriation bills,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the September schedule, which included several bills that are part of the GOP’s “A Better Way” plan, reflected a desire from members to provide a down payment on the 2017 agenda on which they were campaigning.
“I thought it’d be probably more productive,” the California Republican said of moving the Better Way bills over appropriations measures.
Still, some members said they wished the House had spent time on appropriations bills.
“We should’ve done at least two more,” said Rep. Bill Flores, the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee.
The Texas congressman said the breakdown of the Senate appropriations process is what led the House to abandon its bills.
“I’m really, really frustrated with the Senate,” Flores said as he recounted McConnell telling GOP lawmakers at the January retreat that he had a deal with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid that ensured Democrats wouldn’t block consideration of appropriations measures.
House Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat agreed that the blame lies with the Senate, but he said House GOP leaders weakened their hand by halting their process, too.
“Reid blocked, and we sent our signal way too early and gave up all of our leverage,” the Virginia Republican said.
Ryan faulted Senate Democrats for what he said was a deliberate decision to “slow things down and prevent further activity.”
The Wisconsin Republican also suggested that Senate Democrats will be to blame if the lame-duck spending negotiations don’t bear fruit. “My hope is that after the election, they’ll drop their political shenanigans and we’ll get on at doing the serious business of actually appropriating,” the speaker said. “If we don’t, we’ll do another CR.”
When Ryan first pitched the minibus strategy to his conference on Sept. 9, he suggested another CR may be inevitable for some agencies. While he wants to finish as many bills as possible, Ryan told his members that the priority would be to finish the national security-related bills, and that a CR could be used to extend funding through the end of fiscal 2017 for any unfinished bills.
Democrats have called that idea a nonstarter, and noted that the only way they could vote for minibuses is if all the 11 remaining bills get done.
“If the minibuses add up to an omnibus, if everything was included, [then] we can vote on something like that when we see the whole package,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters last month.
Even some Republicans acknowledge that talk of passing the appropriations bills for defense and using a CR for the rest is “delusional,” as Dent put it.
“The practical reality is this: Senate Democrats will never allow us to pass the defense appropriations bill independent of many of the major domestic discretionary bills, Labor-HHS being chief among that,” Dent said. “In my view, the last appropriations bill will be defense, with whatever else is unfinished.”
Cole, too, said Democrats aren’t going to fall for a strategy that prioritizes defense over discretionary spending.
“We get to appropriate the things we like to appropriate and they have to CR the things they like?” he said. “I don’t think so.”