House Democrats propose $1.5 trillion spending ceiling

Adoption of topline budget target will allow appropriators to start work; reconciliation instructions for Biden's spending plans to come later

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., arrives for a hearing on the White House's fiscal 2022 budget request on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., arrives for a hearing on the White House's fiscal 2022 budget request on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 14, 2021 at 11:53am

House Democrats introduced a resolution that would greenlight over $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending for the upcoming fiscal year, clearing the way for that chamber to sign off on President Joe Biden's topline request as soon as Monday.

If adopted, the "deeming" resolution will allow the Appropriations Committee to begin drafting its dozen fiscal 2022 spending bills ahead of markups later this month and in early July. The measure is an internal enforcement mechanism for the House intended to prevent amendments or entire bills from breaching the overall cap when the chamber's appropriations bills reach the floor next month.

The measure would set a topline spending limit of $1.506 trillion for appropriators to carve up, not counting a handful of "cap adjustments" that would allow more spending on traditional add-ons such as disaster relief, wildfire suppression and "program integrity" initiatives at agencies to help crack down on waste, fraud and abuse.

The base spending limit would amount to a 9 percent boost over the current fiscal year, which the House Budget Committee said would restore "critical public services and benefits after almost a decade of austerity and uncertainty" due to spending caps imposed by the 2011 deficit reduction law.

The deeming resolution does not break out separate caps for defense and nondefense programs. The Biden administration has proposed $770 billion, or a 16.5 percent increase, for domestic and foreign aid programs, and $753 billion for defense, a 1.6 percent boost.

[Budget release starts a process that will run through summer]

Including those figures likely would have led to a tricky floor vote for Democrats, who starting Monday night once Rep.-elect Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., is sworn in, can only lose four of their members on key votes if no Republicans are on board. And GOP lawmakers have critiqued Biden's budget request as shortchanging defense accounts while providing too much in other areas.

"Instead of increasing our Defense budget to keep up with the threat from our greatest adversaries like China, Biden's budget prioritizes funding for liberal priorities like climate change — all paid for by raising taxes on hardworking Americans," House Appropriations Committee Republicans tweeted May 28, the day Biden released his full budget request.

Progressive Democrats have criticized the White House for proposing increases to defense spending, with some calling on the White House to cut defense funding levels compared to enacted levels. Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called for a 10 percent reduction in defense spending for years as have several left-leaning Democrats in the House.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said in a May 28 interview there could be some wiggle room on defense vs. nondefense numbers. But he said the defense total likely wouldn’t go lower than the current year’s budget and that he suspects “in the final analysis it'll be closer to the president's number.”

Biden’s budget would provide $12 billion more for defense next year than in fiscal 2021, which if reduced would mean some of that extra money could be distributed to domestic and foreign aid programs. Those decisions won't get made until House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., parcels out funding among each fiscal 2022 bill later this month.

The deeming resolution doesn't include reconciliation instructions to authorizing committees to produce filibuster-proof legislation to implement Biden's infrastructure and other spending and tax plans. That will come as part of a separate fiscal 2022 budget resolution House Democrats haven't yet unveiled.

The House Budget panel described the deeming resolution as a "housekeeping measure" that will allow Democrats to turn their attention to the budget resolution and reconciliation process.

[Hill staffers expect Biden infrastructure plan to pass but little else]

"This will provide an alternate path for the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan so they can become law with or without Republican support," the committee backgrounder said, using nicknames the Biden administration has given its infrastructure and child care, education and paid leave plans.

No more 'OCO'

The House "deemer" adopts the Biden administration approach of eliminating a separate cap-exempt designation for Overseas Contingency Operations spending, which has long been viewed as a way to squeeze extra military and foreign aid dollars into appropriations bills without having to cut elsewhere.

The disaster relief cap adjustment doesn't specify an exact figure, but based on the formula used in recent years the White House has proposed $18.9 billion. For wildfire suppression, the total is $2.45 billion; and for program integrity initiatives at the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, $1.99 billion. 

The deeming resolution also would adopt a new category of program integrity cap adjustment for IRS tax enforcement, allowing an extra $417 million in line with Biden's request. It would not adopt a Biden administration proposal to create a new category of "advance" appropriation for the Indian Health Service that would be similar to the process for funding veterans health care.

The terms of the deeming resolution would expire upon adoption of a broader fiscal 2022 budget resolution, however, so it's possible changes could still be made.

House leaders are expected to add the deeming resolution to a rule for floor debate on unrelated legislation, according to a source familiar with the plans. The Rules Committee is meeting at 1 p.m. Monday to consider the rule for corporate governance legislation and to repeal the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, two measures expected to have broad support within the Democratic caucus.

Subcommittee allocations

Once the rule is adopted, the $1.5 trillion spending ceiling — known as the 302(a) allocation under that section of the 1974 law governing the modern budget process — would be set. Then DeLauro can formally divvy up that figure into 302(b) allocations for each of the dozen fiscal 2022 spending bills.

But without an agreement on topline figures that has the support of at least 60 senators, spending bills won't be able to advance in that chamber.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has urged congressional leaders to begin negotiations, saying in a statement late last month that “it is essential that Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, work along-side the White House to negotiate budget toplines so that we can commence the appropriations process for the fiscal year that begins October 1.”

Acting White House budget director Shalanda D. Young told Senate appropriators last week that such talks weren't yet planned and that each chamber would need to "work their will" on spending caps using Biden's request as a starting point.

Without a bipartisan agreement on defense and nondefense spending for fiscal 2022, the appropriations process could stall out in the Senate once again.

Senate appropriators were unable to mark up bills last year amid disagreement between Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who was chairman at the time, and Leahy about whether Democrats should be allowed to offer amendments on COVID-19 funding and social justice issues.

Leahy repeatedly expressed frustration during the stalemate, saying that members should get in a room and vote on the amendments and the bills.

Last week Shelby predicted a “long, hard winter” for the appropriations process this year without a bipartisan deal on topline budget numbers, complete with “multiple” stopgap funding extensions.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.