Politics

Republicans Warming to $15 Billion Cuts Package

Dispute remains over whether proposal is protected from filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not rule out his chamber considering a proposal to cut spending already authorized, as long as it passes the House. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans appear ready to advance the White House’s $15.4 billion rescissions request through both chambers of Congress, after the administration dropped the idea — for now — of canceling funds provided in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill enacted in March.

“If the House is able to pass the rescissions package, we’ll take a look at it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday, noting that the so-called special message “does not breach the bipartisan agreement we reached in the caps deal.”

In February, lawmakers agreed to bolster defense and nondefense appropriations for fiscal 2018 by a combined $143 billion above the previous statutory caps, paving the way for a $1.3 trillion omnibus to become law in March.

Democrats are displeased with proposed cuts, but the package’s procedural protections mean that it could potentially pass the Senate without Democratic support — if every Republican votes in favor of passage. That’s not yet set in stone, as GOP senators are just getting their first glimpse of the cuts sent to Congress officially on Tuesday morning.

Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins said she is still reviewing the rescissions package.

“I don’t know yet,” said the Maine Republican, pointing out some $320 million in cuts from within her subcommittee’s purview. “I would be concerned if money’s taken out of the Highway Trust Fund,” she said, since there is “not enough” money in the fund now. “But I just don’t know.”

The Trump administration maintains that eliminating budget authority provided for two Children’s Health Insurance Program accounts, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, the 2015 Ebola outbreak, watershed rehabilitation programs for Superstorm Sandy and a handful of other government programs will benefit the nation’s fiscal standing.

“These proposals include rescissions of funding that is no longer needed for the purpose for which it was appropriated by the Congress; in many cases, these funds have been left unspent by agencies for years,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in a statement. “These proposals also include rescissions of low priority and unnecessary Federal spending.”

The overall request, however, despite canceling $15.4 billion in budget authority would only reduce the deficit by about $3 billion, because many of the items included are unneeded or are inactive accounts, according to Mulvaney’s letter accompanying the special message.

CHIP Cuts in the Crossfire

Democrats weren’t holding back in their initial assessments of the cuts request.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s dead on arrival,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “It is outrageous for the administration to try to hide their deficits that they created through their tax bill, on the shoulders of children in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, on the back of transit riders, on the back of so many people who depend upon so many of these critical programs.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said earlier Tuesday “there’s something’s wrong” when Republicans would propose cutting CHIP funds a day after first lady Melania Trump rolled out a campaign to promote children’s health.

At a House Appropriations Committee markup, which was getting under way just as the rescissions requests were submitted to Congress, the panel’s ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said the cuts “will reportedly undo valuable work of this committee in prior years.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., countered that CHIP funds are “sitting there that cannot be used that will not affect any individual going forward.” He also noted that Democrats voted to cut more than $6 billion in unspent CHIP funds in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill  enacted in March, although the money was used to offset other programs in the Labor-HHS-Education title of the omnibus.

Pelosi suggested that using the CHIP money as a “pay-for” for related programs was the better approach.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., has not looked closely at the rescissions request yet but said he’s talked to Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the lead Democratic appropriator on the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, and she believes the CHIP rescission would be very harmful.

DeLauro said that those CHIP funds have been used to plug shortfalls in other children’s health programs and the concern is about “the availability of money for filing holes where they exist,” according to Hoyer.

The rescissions package “would have an adverse effect on the fiscal 2019 baseline,” he added.

Hoyer said he’s open to looking at rescinding funds from expired programs, but noted that Republicans only drew their rescissions from domestic spending when there’s “a large sum” of unspent defense funding.

Starting the Clock

The rescissions request submitted to Congress on Tuesday starts a 45-day clock, during which the administration freezes spending on the line items included. If Congress does not act on the request by the end of that time period, which does not include legislative breaks lasting longer than three days, the administration must spend the money.

There is also a 25-day clock for the committee of jurisdiction — most likely the House and Senate Appropriations committees — to act on the request. If the committee doesn’t act in the allotted time, a motion to discharge can be offered to bring the request directly to the floor of either chamber, provided it has the backing of at least one-fifth of the members in either chamber.

House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he is unsure if House appropriators will mark up a rescissions bill or let a lawmaker bypass the committee and introduce it. Cole said he does not “sense that the Appropriations Committee is desperate to have it come through” the committee. “So the signal is just do what you guys think makes the most sense to do politically,” he said.

Cole acknowledged there is a concern that if the committee marks up the bill there would be a lot of time-consuming amendments. “I mean there’s no question Democrats would try to spend the money on some sort of really good sounding political thing, but again they do that all the time,” he said, adding the amendments would take valuable time away from marking up fiscal 2019 bills, and also expose appropriators to “tough votes.”

Overall, Cole said the White House package is getting a favorable reception among Republicans and he expects it to pass the House.

Should the Senate take up a rescissions package, under the 1974 law establishing the modern budget process it would be protected from the typical 60-vote filibuster hurdle — but there’s potentially a catch.

Some Senate Democrats believe the inclusion of cuts from so-called “mandatory” accounts, or spending that is not controlled by annual appropriations, negates the law’s procedural protections.

The White House argues, however, that the 1974 law does not differentiate between mandatory and discretionary spending, and thus the cuts are fair game for expedited procedures. Ultimately, it will be an issue for the Senate parliamentarian to decide, should a rescissions measure reach the floor in that chamber.

Paul M. Krawzak, Kellie Mejdrich and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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