Rock, meet hard place: Senate appropriators’ dilemma

GOP senators can protect vulnerable members from tough votes or do their legislative jobs, but likely not both

From left, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speak to reporters as they leave a meeting on COVID-19 aid on July 21, 2020.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speak to reporters as they leave a meeting on COVID-19 aid on July 21, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 22, 2020 at 6:30am

As House lawmakers start debating most if not all of the dozen spending bills for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 over the next two weeks, they are leaving their Senate counterparts in the dust. 

The Democrat-led House Appropriations Committee has marked up all 12 bills, with floor action getting underway later this week. The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee has not marked up any of its bills, and it appears unlikely to do so before the November elections.

The ostensible holdup is the lack of an agreement between Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., on what amendments will be offered in committee.

But election-year politics appears to be the real underlying culprit, according to budget experts. They say Democrats want to use amendments to score political points to try to reclaim control of the Senate, and Republicans see no point in taking those shots if there is no expectation the bills will be passed before the elections. 

The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to tax and spend federal dollars. That makes passing appropriations legislation one of the most important duties of lawmakers. Yet it’s possible Senate appropriators could end the year without marking up any bills, which has never happened since at least 1985, which is as far back as the chamber’s online records go.

That gives Senate Republicans a bit of a Hobson’s choice: They can protect vulnerable members from tough votes or do their legislative jobs, but likely not both.

The Senate typically lags the House in advancing appropriations bills. But in recent years, it has usually begun markups by June or July at the latest. Last year was an exception, when the negotiation of a two-year deal to raise discretionary spending caps caused the Senate Appropriations Committee to delay markups until September.  

But another September markup sprint is considered unlikely this year because of the elections, which means the window for action is getting very narrow.

The Senate is expected to spend the rest of July on a pandemic relief bill. When Congress returns after Labor Day, the focus will turn to passing a temporary stopgap to avoid a partial government shutdown when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. By then, campaigning will be in full swing.

With President Donald Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls and Senate races narrowing, Democrats see an opportunity to win the presidency and retake the Senate, aided by potential Biden coattails.

Neck and neck

Two Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee who would normally be favorites for reelection, Susan Collins of Maine and Steve Daines of Montana, are running neck and neck against their Democratic opponents. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both contests as Toss-ups.

Marking up appropriations bills would allow Democrats to offer amendments aimed at forcing vulnerable Republicans to take painful votes that could be used as ammunition in campaign advertisements.

“I don’t see any reason why they should go to markup if the goal of the markup is to simply create political fodder for the election rather than actually move the bills forward,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who served on Appropriations from 1995 through his retirement after the 2010 elections. “After the election, there’ll be more rational thought and more willingness to sit down and actually do the bills for the purposes of funding the government versus for the purposes of running political campaigns.”

Charles Houy, a former Senate Appropriations Committee Democratic staff director, also thinks it is unlikely the committee marks up any bills before the election.

“Even if Leahy wants to be cooperative with Shelby, it’s going to be really hard to convince your members not to do things right before the election,” he said, referring to amendments. “There’s obviously some folks on the committee that are not going to go away quietly right before the election. And I would imagine the leadership would be pushing them to do this.”  

Shelby told reporters last month that he still wants to mark up the bills, but “until we get the agreement we won’t be marking up.”

Shelby and Leahy struck agreements in the past to avoid contentious amendments that threatened to derail the markups. But they have made little if any progress in reaching an agreement this time, according to people with knowledge of the process who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Shelby had planned to mark up the first half-dozen bills in late June. He changed his mind after Leahy said Democrats intended to offer amendments to add pandemic relief and social justice-related provisions to the bills after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

Shelby said in a statement last month that he would “not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow.” A Shelby aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said Tuesday that Republicans “continue to hope that the Democrats will return to the Shelby-Leahy agreement that led to so much bipartisan success in previous years. If they do, we would be able to move out with good bills that they helped write.”   

A Senate Democratic appropriations aide countered that previous agreements were meant to avoid poison pill policy amendments, not funding amendments. “In the midst of a pandemic, a member should have the right to offer a COVID funding amendment,” said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “In the midst of the racial justice movement, a member should be able to offer a funding amendment.”  

’Some big fights’

In the past, Gregg said, appropriators routinely offered partisan amendments at markups. But he said there was an understanding between the chairman and ranking member that “when that bill came from those two people it was going to pass. It was also understood that people had the right to throw whatever amendments they wanted at it and there would be some big fights.”  

Gregg said this time “it sounds like” Democrats are not committed to advancing the bills. The bills “probably wouldn’t even pass out of committee,” he said. Committee approval requires a simple majority.

Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Committee Democratic staff director, called the Senate’s markup delay “the most abrupt stoppage that I can think of if Shelby does continue to resist any kind of markup.”

Lilly said there are House Democrats who face “significant opposition and they have bills coming to the floor, which the Republican minority can offer amendments to and embarrass them. So you would think that … Republican senators could take as much heat as Democratic House members.”  

Houy sees a path to marking up the bills once Congress passes the next COVID-19 aid bill, which he thinks will contain racial justice provisions as well as pandemic aid. He said a pandemic aid bill will clear away those two “stumbling blocks” to marking up Senate spending bills. 

But the fate of appropriations bills also may depend on the election results. Houy said if Biden beats Trump, Democrats gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and retain control of the House, he could see delaying action on the fiscal 2021 appropriations bills until next year. But in any other scenario, he said, it would be “foolish for Democrats to hold up the bills until the spring.”  

“It’s hard enough to get bills done,” Houy said. “Delaying on the hope of getting some marginal improvements won’t wash with the committees.”