Busy summer ahead for appropriators after pandemic delays

Dividing the federal spending pie already shaping up to be a partisan battle in an election year

From left, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy have fiscal 2021 spending markups on their minds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy have fiscal 2021 spending markups on their minds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 10, 2020 at 10:00am

Lawmakers in the coming weeks will begin deciding how to spend another $1.4 trillion in annual appropriations, diving into debates over funding President Donald Trump’s border wall, public health programs and more after coronavirus-related delays sidelined the process earlier this spring.

Dividing that pie is already shaping up to be a partisan battle, and that’s before any new election-year fights — such as funding for law enforcement in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — enter the picture.

The Senate will begin its fiscal 2021 markups the week of June 22, a rare case of that chamber starting the appropriations process first rather than the House. In an unusual move that could speed things up, Senate subcommittees have been given the option to skip their markups and go straight to full committee, according to a Senate GOP aide who wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

The House will follow the week of July 6 — the latest start for that chamber since at least 1985, according to legislative records. Still, House lawmakers are aiming to quickly jump ahead of their Senate counterparts and pass most, if not all, of their dozen bills before the August recess.

That’s easier to do in the House where the majority can pass bills on party-line votes if necessary. It usually takes 60 votes to end debate on spending bills in the Senate, making bipartisanship a must with the current 53-47 split in that chamber.

But with markups just weeks away, Senate appropriators haven’t yet brokered a bipartisan compromise on all 12 subcommittee funding allocations, known as 302(b)s. “Everything’s not complete but we’ve got our markup schedule, and we’ll go from there,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday.

Senate Appropriations ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy has been wary that Republicans might once again try to shift funding from health and education programs, for instance, to the border wall project.

Loading the player...

Wall funding is mainly handled by the Homeland Security Subcommittee, but the Military Construction-VA bill has also become a battleground since Trump started diverting military base resources to the wall project. Those two bills “are stumbling blocks, always, and we’ll ultimately resolve them, but we haven’t resolved them yet,” Shelby said Tuesday.

Leahy told CQ Roll Call last week it was possible Democrats would offer their own slate of 302(b) allocations as an amendment in the full committee markup, as they did last year.

“There may be some we have agreement on before we go in, and we’ll agree on those. If we disagree, we’ll offer our own. But I realize, of course, we’re in the minority,” the Vermont Democrat said. He added Monday that he and Shelby were “close on a number of parts” of the subcommittee allocations.

Previously, the Senate’s top Republicans and Democrats, as well as House Democrats, agreed to designate billions of dollars for veterans’ health care as an “emergency” so the money wouldn’t count toward the $626.5 billion fiscal 2021 nondefense appropriations cap. Even with the extra money, nondefense accounts would still be limited to little more than a 2 percent boost over the current year, including other cap adjustments.

A disagreement over spending levels could lead to a repeat of last year, which saw partisan committee votes on the Senate's initial fiscal 2020 Defense and Homeland Security measures. Two other bills — Labor-HHS-Education and Military Construction-VA — never even got a vote in committee. Those four bills alone account for about 75 percent of total regular appropriations.

Political attacks

Even if there’s an allocations deal between Senate Democrats and Republicans, it’s possible spending bills won’t see floor action. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — himself up for reelection in November — hasn’t said he plans to set aside any floor time, which could expose at-risk Republicans to votes designed for political attack ads.

Adding to the potential divides, House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro may create another spending cap exemption for health care agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Connecticut Democrat said in a statement that she is exploring “an emergency designation for certain programs considering the pandemic.”

DeLauro’s Senate counterpart, Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt, isn’t supporting that proposal, at least for now.

“It’s an interesting way to raise your spending limit and that always solves problems, but it creates some long-term problems,” the Missouri Republican said, before adding that he’s continuing conversations with DeLauro.

Even without added Labor-HHS-Education spending, the move by Shelby and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., to exempt $12.5 billion for programs helping veterans see private doctors from budget caps could prompt further debate.

Shelby says Trump is “neutral” on the subject, while McConnell, a member of the Appropriations Committee, is said to be on board with the plan, backed by top Democrats. But Trump could always have a change of heart, egged on by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whom Trump called on for his views during a May meeting with Shelby on the topic.

McCarthy is dug in against the VA cap exemption because the extra spending would break the two-year budget deal agreed to last August, according to people familiar with the discussions.

House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, is also opposed to the move, in part because there may not be broad support from House Republicans after spending already skyrocketed to address the pandemic, according to a GOP aide not authorized to speak publicly.

If there’s no deal, however, the fallback option — a stopgap bill — would fund veterans’ health care at current-year levels rather than the big increases both parties support.

Law enforcement funding

The police brutality debate could also migrate over into the appropriations process.

On Tuesday, McConnell said Senate Republicans led by Tim Scott of South Carolina would be developing their own proposal, following Monday’s release of House and Senate Democrats’ policing overhaul measures.

The Democrats’ plan didn’t address law enforcement funding, but the “must-pass” nature of spending bills usually makes them a magnet for hot-button policy issues.

A House Democratic aide, not authorized to speak publicly, said the Appropriations Committee is “in discussions with the authorizing committees on how we can help ensure that federal funding promotes a fair criminal justice system.”

DeLauro said that while many of the proposed changes will advance through other committees, she expects the spending panel will also push for policing changes in its bills. If so, law enforcement policy riders could be on the table in conference with the Senate, even if that chamber doesn’t act on separate legislation.

Regardless of the policy or funding issue at hand, the track record for getting appropriations done in election years isn’t good.

At a minimum, there’s widespread acknowledgment that at least one stopgap bill will be needed to temporarily fund federal agencies until final decisions can be made after the November elections. And in 10 elections over the past two decades, lawmakers on average have had to hold seven bills over until the following calendar year.

In eight of those elections, either the presidency or one or both chambers have changed hands, giving the winners an incentive to try to shape final bills once they take control. In late 2016, for example, the GOP-controlled Congress punted 11 of the 12 bills into the spring so Trump could put his stamp on them.

If that happened again, it would be a disappointment for the retiring Lowey, whose predecessor, former Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., saw a fast start to the fiscal 2019 process deteriorate into the longest government shutdown in history after the 2018 midterms. That fight, which centered around border wall funding, wasn’t resolved until the following February.

Paul M. Krawzak and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.