Congress’ To-Do List: Border Funding, Stopgap

Posted September 5, 2014 at 2:19pm

Democrats and the Obama administration will continue to push for more border funding when Congress returns from recess, but a short legislative calendar and a growing rift between the parties on immigration may leave the upcoming continuing resolution as perhaps their only shot for securing additional dollars before the elections.

But even accomplishing that will be an uphill climb, given the current political climate.

Congress returns to Washington with a short to-do list; passing a stopgap to keep the government operating past Sept. 30 may be the only legislation both chambers will advance before breaking for the elections.

Border apprehensions are down significantly, according to government data released this week, and press coverage of the child migrant crisis has waned over the recess.

With less perceived urgency among the public and only about two-and-a-half weeks of legislative days scheduled for September, Democrats will likely have less leverage as they try to convince Republicans to revisit the politically bruising issue of extra border funding before the elections.

With that in mind, if Democrats still want to keep the administration’s $3.7 billion supplemental request alive, it may suit them to try to merge that debate with the fiscal 2015 stopgap in the days ahead.

Combining the two issues is perhaps the most feasible way for supporters to secure at least some new funding for the child migrant crisis ahead of the lame duck.

Supporters could argue that such an approach would help send new resources to the border — a CR would extend policy directives and spending levels initially developed back in 2013, before the situation was perceived as a crisis — while also cutting down on the number of tough votes lawmakers must cast ahead of the midterms.


‘Clean’ Stopgap

Securing significant spending additions for the border in a CR, however, will be a heavy lift.

For starters, the parties demonstrated just how far apart they were on the border when they bolted out of town last month without forging a compromise on drastically different supplemental proposals (HR 5230, S 2648). Lawmakers are unlikely to move any closer to compromise in the weeks ahead as they eye the final stretch of the campaign season.

House Republicans in recent days have hinted that the border supplemental has fallen off their radar as the administration has also made less noise about the issue. The emergency spending bill was conspicuously left off the email Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California sent to House Republicans about the September agenda on Thursday.

It will be quite difficult for Democrats and the administration to convince Republicans that the issue is worth revisiting, especially if constituents are no longer pressuring them to do so.

With that in mind, their best bet will be convincing the House and Senate Appropriations committees that there is an urgent need for additional funding.

The Office of Management and Budget is “reviewing contingency and operational options,” Melanie Roussell Newman, OMB’s associate director for communications and strategic planning, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call last month.

The White House submitted a list of proposed spending “anomalies” for a CR to the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees last week that included several relatively minor, targeted requests for border agencies.

But the OMB said in a memo that the requested anomalies did not replace the need for extra funding.

“The anomaly will help the agency manage through the period of a CR, but is not a substitute for the President’s supplemental appropriations request submitted to the Congress earlier this summer,” the OMB said.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees typically keep anomalies and policy riders to a minimum when formulating a stopgap, even in non-election years. Appropriators typically make exceptions only for the federal programs deemed to have the most urgent need, since many in Congress are deeply skeptical of such spending exemptions.

But this year the bar for anomalies will be set particularly high, especially in the House, where the CR will originate.

With control of both chambers of Congress within reach for the first time in years, GOP leaders will try to clear the way for Republican candidates as they head into the final campaign stretch.

They want to avoid another bruising government shutdown when fiscal 2014 funding runs out after Sept. 30, and minimize awkward votes that could disadvantage incumbents.

That means leaders will work to keep a CR free of too many spending anomalies to avoid sapping Republican support and fend off policy riders that could jeopardize Democratic votes needed to move it through the Senate.

Such a stopgap is expected to do little more than extend fiscal 2014 spending levels and policy directives (PL 113-76) through Dec. 11 or 12.

If the House passes a stripped-down CR, the supplemental’s supporters could have more luck in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is likely to be more amenable to amending the House stopgap to include more funding for the border.

If appropriators ultimately decide against granting more funding to border agencies, they may provide the administration with at least some additional reprogramming or transfer authority to plug budget holes.

While that would ensure that programs don’t run out of money, if border apprehensions rise in the cooler autumn and winter months, federal officials may be forced to once again siphon away the budgets of other, unrelated accounts in their department to help buoy border-related agencies.