House Democrats change tack on spending bill floor debate

The reason for the strategy shift wasn’t immediately clear

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 28, 2021 at 4:11pm, Updated at 6:56pm

The House abruptly changed gears on appropriations Wednesday, pivoting off a seven-bill package temporarily to take up three separate bills for the coming fiscal year.

The reason for the strategy shift wasn’t immediately clear. But one source familiar with the planning said Democratic support for the three new bills added to the schedule — Commerce-Justice-Science, State-Foreign Operations, and Legislative Branch —wasn’t locked down until Tuesday night and remains fragile.

Leaders may want to get those bills passed quickly to avoid the risk of support eroding, the source said. Another potential issue was the timing of Rep.-elect Jake Ellzey's swearing-in, after the Texas Republican won a special election Tuesday for the seat vacated by Rep. Ron Wright, who died in February. When Ellzey is sworn in, House Democrats' partisan margin will be down to three votes.

Another timing issue could emerge because Republicans were offering several procedural motions intended to stall legislative movement, apparently in protest over the reinstatement of mask mandates in that chamber. The motions were being swatted down on mostly party-line votes, but nonetheless were chewing up valuable floor time as House leaders aim to break for the August recess on Friday.

By contrast, support for the $620 billion seven-bill package appears solid and will pass the House by week’s end in a party-line vote. Republicans are expected to vote against all the fiscal 2022 bills, which they say shortchange the military, spend too much on domestic programs, and allow for federal funding of abortions.

Democrats were still fine-tuning the three new additions to Wednesday's floor schedule with some last-minute "self-executed" amendments. The changes were tucked into the rule for floor debate that made in order a combined 109 amendments to the three spending bills, which was adopted on a 217-208 vote.

Three Democrats voted against the rule, a rare move for the party faithful, with a fourth voting "no" on a motion to table an attempt to reconsider the rule pushed by Republicans.

Two Democrats voting against the rule had offered amendments with bipartisan support at the Rules Committee seeking to divert funds in the $62.2 billion State-Foreign Operations bill to pro-democracy efforts in Cuba. Those were Florida's Stephanie Murphy, from a state with a large Cuban presence, and New Jersey's Albio Sires — who was born in Cuba and whose family fled the Castro regime in 1962. Another Florida Democrat who backed the amendments, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, voted against the motion to table the rule's reconsideration.

The amendments would have increased economic aid to Cuba by $7.5 million and transferred $15 million to programs aimed at increasing access to independent media and internet freedom on the island nation. Murphy, another NRCC target in the 2022 midterms, tweeted after the vote that the leadership-drafted rule was "overly restrictive," adding: "Congress must empower the Cuban people."

A third Democrat who voted against the rule — Georgia's Carolyn Bourdeaux, a freshman who flipped a GOP seat in 2020 and is considered among the most vulnerable incumbents — voted that way because of general concerns about fiscal policy.

The suburban Atlanta lawmaker said her vote was "a message that Congress must revisit how we consider the annual appropriations bills." Bourdeaux said she planned to support the bills on final passage, but that "we need a process that better lays out the trade-offs inherent in any budget and moves us to a more responsible fiscally sustainable budget.”

Jan. 6 amendments

An amendment to the $82.6 billion Commerce-Justice-Science bill by Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., would provide an additional $39.5 million to support the prosecution of rioters who stormed the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. That total includes $34 million for U.S. attorneys, $3.8 million for the Justice Department’s criminal division, and $1.7 million for its national security division.

Cartwright is managing his first Commerce-Justice-Science bill on the floor since becoming that subcommittee's "cardinal" at the start of the 117th Congress, taking over for former Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., who retired. Cartwright is on the National Republican Congressional Committee's target list after eking out a 3.6 percentage-point win in northeastern Pennsylvania's 8th District, which former President Donald Trump won twice.

It wasn't clear when the Commerce-Justice-Science measure would get a final vote, however, as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., announced Wednesday night that only the Legislative Branch and State-Foreign Operations bills were nearing final passage. 

Virginia's Jennifer Wexton, who flipped a GOP seat in the 2018 midterms, secured language via self-executed amendment to the $4.8 billion Legislative Branch bill that would require a plaque commemorating the sacrifices during the Jan. 6 insurrection of numerous federal as well as state and local law enforcement agencies, such as the Virginia State Police and Fairfax County police.

Wexton's amendment is intended to supplement a provision in the underlying bill, added by Legislative Branch ranking member Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., that would require a similar plaque commemorating specific Capitol Police and Washington Metropolitan Police Department officers. 

IMF funds

Another self-executed amendment, this time on State-Foreign Operations, calls for the International Monetary Fund to help countries around the globe recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IMF has proposed the biggest expansion of new Special Drawing Rights in the international financial institution’s history. SDRs — provided to all countries in the 190-member fund — are interest-bearing foreign exchange reserve assets that can be traded by developing economies for hard currency from wealthier economies to pay their pandemic-related bills, with the IMF facilitating the transaction.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a prominent progressive who is the new head of the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, would make it U.S. policy to support the issuance of new SDRs for no less than $1.54 trillion "so that governments are able to access additional resources to finance their responses to the global COVID–19 pandemic."

But since the IMF proposal is likely to receive final approval from the fund's board of governors this summer — well before a final fiscal 2022 foreign aid bill can be sent to the president — it's not clear what impact the Lee amendment would have other than as political messaging.

Many Republicans oppose the issuance of a massive new pot of IMF assets, arguing it could financially benefit economies like Russia and China at U.S. taxpayer expense. The Treasury Department, which supports the IMF’s SDR expansion proposal, argues that risk is overblown and the U.S. government would be earning interest on any assets it acquires through SDR trades.

House leaders initially were hoping to pass all three bills by Wednesday evening, before returning to the seven-bill package later in the week and adjourning for their August recess.

House leaders initially were hoping to pass all three bills by Wednesday evening, before returning to the seven-bill package later in the week and adjourning for their August recess. 

If they're able to complete the Commerce-Justice-Science bill this week as well, it would mean the House would have passed 10 of its 12 spending bills needed for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Passing the two remaining bills — Defense and Homeland Security — will likely prove to be a tougher challenge because of internal Democratic caucus divisions over military spending levels and immigration policies.

None of the Democratic-written bills, however, can advance in the evenly divided Senate, where bipartisan support will be required. Senate appropriators have not yet marked up their own bills and may wait until September to begin that process.

Chris Cioffi, Paul M. Krawzak, Rachel Oswald and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.