Partisan stopgap funding bill set for House vote Tuesday

Republicans may try to amend bill on the House floor or when it reaches the Senate; lawmakers face Sept. 30 deadline

Speaker Nancy Pelosi says a Supreme Court battle won't interfere with spending negotiations. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi says a Supreme Court battle won't interfere with spending negotiations. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 21, 2020 at 11:20am, Updated at 7:46pm

The House will vote Tuesday on a short-term funding bill written by majority Democrats without support from Republicans, increasing the odds of a partial government shutdown in less than 10 days when current spending authority expires. 

The Democrats’ bill would remove agriculture and nutrition policy riders that were in dispute late last week when talks on a bipartisan continuing resolution reached an impasse. That decision wasn't sitting well with Senate Republicans, however, increasing prospects for a legislative ping-pong match that may or may not finish on time.

The House bill would preserve the Dec. 11 end date both parties had agreed to Friday, but would drop a more than $20 billion replenishment of Commodity Credit Corporation funds for farm payments sought by the White House and congressional Republicans.

“House Democrats’ rough draft of a government funding bill shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted after the bill’s release.

It would also drop a $2.7 billion extension of the expiring Pandemic EBT program sought by Democrats, which provides meals for children who would normally receive free or reduced-price lunches when schools are open.

Those provisions had been tentatively agreed to as part of a "deal in principle" on Friday, according to sources involved in the talks. But when word got around, some Democrats balked at what they viewed as insufficient food aid for low-income families compared to the generous funding for farmers and ranchers.

[Stopgap funding talks bleed into weekend amid farm aid pushback]

The Senate Agriculture Committee's top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said the CCC money should be excluded because the administration was using it as a "slush fund" for favored constituencies as far afield as Maine lobstermen and oil refiners denied waivers from renewable fuel quotas.

She characterized aid to lobster fisheries as "political payments" intended to boost GOP Sen. Susan Collins' reelection chances. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks Collins' race a "Toss-up" in November.

"I think the administration wants as much money to use without accountability as they can get before the election,” Stabenow told an Agri-Pulse forum on Monday.

Lobster is one of 16 types of seafood eligible for a $530 million pool of grants the Agriculture Department made available Sept. 9 to compensate producers for tariff-related losses. Other Maine lawmakers backed the aid, including Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat facing his own tough reelection bid in a district President Donald Trump won by nearly 11 percentage points.

The top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, K. Michael Conaway of Texas, offered an amendment in the Rules Committee on Monday to add the CCC replenishment provision, as well as an one-year extension of the Pandemic EBT program. 

"This is terrible policy and frankly it’s bad politics for anybody who is going to try to go home and defend this argument in October," Conaway said of Democrats leaving out the CCC language. 

The Democratic majority reported a closed rule that bars amendments, but Republicans will get one more try as part of a motion to recommit on the floor.

The Iowa congressional delegation, including one GOP senator and two freshman House Democrats in tough races, wrote to party leaders urging them to restore the funds in the CR. "Our dairy and livestock producers and crop farmers depend on the availability of these resources," the lawmakers wrote. "Our farmers should not be used as a bargaining chip for negotiations."

Democrats made other concessions to Republicans, leaving out an extension of redistricting-related census deadlines and election security funding.

They also dropped their push for a bill that would last until through February. Democrats feared Trump might refuse to sign a lame duck stopgap measure — forcing a shutdown just before lawmakers are scheduled to wrap up the 116th Congress and leave Washington for their winter break.

Highway funds, Medicare premiums

The CR will mostly keep spending flat compared to the current fiscal year, though it includes several minor changes to funding levels and policies, known as anomalies. The package also includes numerous reauthorizations for programs that would otherwise lapse at the end of September, such as the National Flood Insurance Program and surface transportation spending.

The resolution mostly extends current programs while forbidding new projects. But the CR would permit an anomaly for the Navy to spend $1.6 billion in fiscal 2021 for a down payment to start building the first of a dozen new Columbia-class nuclear-missile submarines, a fraction of its $14.4 billion estimated procurement cost. 

The anomaly allows the Navy to avoid a delay in replacing the 14 Ohio class nuclear-missile submarines, which are expected to start phasing out due to age in about a decade. 

The CR does not include two other nuclear-arms provisions that the administration had sought. It does not allow the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration to move funds between programs to realign with new priorities. 

And it does not permit the agency to start developing a new type of submarine-launched warhead dubbed the W93. The warhead project is expected to cost $14 billion but Democrats have questioned the need for it.

Among other things, the resolution would:

  • Extend for one year the expiring surface transportation programs, along with a $13.6 billion cash infusion for highways and transit and $14 billion for aviation programs. Both trust funds have seen declining excise tax revenue as fewer travelers are filling up their gas tanks or buying airline tickets; Congress also suspended aviation tax collections in the March coronavirus relief package. The money would be transferred from Treasury's general fund, so it wouldn't "score" as a new budgetary cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • Extend for a year the National Flood Insurance Program to avoid a lapse in authority Oct. 1, when the government would no longer be able to write new policies or renew existing ones.
  • Extend funding for community health centers, the National Health Service Corps and other health programs through Dec. 11.
  • Protect Medicare beneficiaries from an expected increase in Part B premiums in 2021, financed by a "surcharge" that seniors would pay over roughly five years, according to the CBO. A senior Democratic aide said the change would limit premium increases for Part B — which funds doctor visits, ambulance services, durable medical equipment and more — to about $4 a month rather than up to $50. The fix would prevent seniors from having to use up much of their Social Security checks next year, which are likely to see very small increases due to low inflation, for Medicare premiums.
  • Provide funding for the presidential transition, including $8 million for the Office of Administration and $13 million for the District of Columbia for expenses associated with the presidential inauguration.
  • Allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to raise fees for an optional "premium processing" service to fast-track certain applications. The measure, which the House passed last month is designed to help close a $1.2 billion budget shortfall the agency faced.
  • Allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tap more than $17 billion in disaster relief funds starting on Oct. 1.

The CBO estimated the measure as a whole would slightly reduce deficits over the next decade, though the fiscal 2021 shortfall would jump by $89.5 billion. That's mostly due to a provision delaying repayment of certain Medicare reimbursements as well as the Part B premium reduction. That money would flow back to the Treasury over time. 

The standoff on the continuing resolution comes amid frayed nerves rattled by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Trump's pending pre-election nomination of a potential successor.

[Supreme Court fight jolts battle for the Senate]

Democrats expressed outrage at the potential move, citing hypocrisy on the GOP side after President Barack Obama's 2016 high court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, didn't get a Senate hearing.

For now, though, top Democrats say they want to keep Supreme Court politics out of the government funding fight.

“None of us has any interest in shutting down government,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" program. “That has such a harmful and painful impact on so many people in our country, so I would hope that we can just proceed with that.”

David Lerman, Ellyn Ferguson and John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.