Even as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski recognized the bit of history made Thursday when she convened her first full committee markup as Appropriations chairwoman, she quickly recognized that a rough road lies ahead.
In reflecting on the work of her distinguished predecessors at the helm of the appropriations panel — all of them men — the Maryland Democrat said in her opening remarks that she's well-aware her new gavel is "not a magic wand."
That became immediately apparent when top GOP appropriator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama explained that all of his members would oppose the top-line spending level of $1.058 trillion in the allocation level offered by Mikulski.
"The American people expect and deserve a Congress that can put aside its differences and work on their behalf. To be frugal but not heartless. To accomplish good in the national interest," Mikulski said. "I regret that we disagree on our spending allocation and I look forward to moving bipartisan bills through this committee in the spirit of cooperation and collegiality."
Shelby expressed the view that the committee's work "must be guided by the law as it currently stands." He had a counterproposal for the so-called 302(b) allocations to total $967 billion for fiscal 2014, but that didn't break down spending by appropriations subcommittee, rather authorizing the committee to make compliant allocations. Shelby also announced his intent to oppose bills that don't comply with the lower level. Democratic allocations were adopted on a party-line vote,
were adopted on a party-line vote, as expected, but six senators opposed each of the first two bills debated Thursday.
The lack of a breakdown in Shelby's offering opened up the Republicans to criticism from the Democrats, since the budget law actually has separate limits for security and nonsecurity spending levels, a point highlighted at the Appropriations Committee markup Thursday by Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Murray and her staff have been highlighting the fact that at the end of the day, the House spending levels aren't actually compliant with the law, either. The Pentagon budget would be subject to sequester under the House Defense Department spending level.
"The [2011 budget deal] says that sequestration is split evenly between defense and nondefense. It sets strict caps for each that kick in if we don’t get an agreement: $498 billion for defense, and $469 billion for nondefense," Murray said. "The House Budget and spending bills bust right through that defense cap. And to do that while keeping to their top-line number, they slash investments in families, communities, infrastructure and health care to devastating levels."
"They're shifting funds around to make some of their bills appear workable, at the same levels as the Senate Budget. But this will leave the remaining bills so unreasonably low that they will never be taken to the House floor," said Murray, who also serves as chairwoman of the subcommittee that funds the Transportation and HUD departments.
At one point, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., sought to press Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri on whether he believed the House allocations were in accordance with the budget law.
"Do you think the House of Representatives is operating under the law that Sen. Murray outlined?" Landrieu asked.
"I don't know what difference it makes," Blunt replied, before explaining that his view was that it was important that the Senate committee adhere to the budget law's requirements regardless of what the House might be doing.
Democrats also took advantage of yet another opportunity to call for Republicans to consent to getting the annual budget resolution into conference with the House to come up with a final baseline for fiscal 2014 spending.
Under the admittedly somewhat mythical practice of "regular order," the House and Senate would have agreed to a budget resolution that directed the Appropriations Committee to do its work at an agreed-on level.
Mikulski said she intended to get all of the bills through her committee by the August recess, an aggressive timeline given the budgeting woes. She also said she would "actually, actually try to get bills on the floor in July." That return to regular order would be a restoration of what seems like a forgotten practice.
Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., offered an amendment to the first spending bill backing a conference committee on the budget resolution. Repeated attempts to do so on the floor have been stymied by some Republicans who want a guarantee that the debt limit won't be raised through budget reconciliation.
"Despite repeated requests for unanimous consent, there have been objections by a number of senators on the Republican side on the floor. I think that's unfortunate. I think it's stopped us from moving forward," Durbin said. "Maybe we can talk some sense to our colleagues about getting to a budget resolution."
Durbin's amendment split panel Republicans, with five GOP appropriators supporting the effort.