The Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the southern border dominated the first few hours of Wednesday’s House Appropriations Committee markup of a spending bill for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments.
As of midafternoon, committee members had gotten through only eight of up to 50 expected amendments to the fiscal 2019 $177.1 billion spending measure.
Among the amendments adopted Wednesday include language overturning the 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores agreement that prevents undocumented children from being held together with their parents in detention for more than 20 days while awaiting criminal or civil immigration court proceedings. The panel also adopted an amendment requiring HHS to release a formal plan for reuniting children with their parents who had been forcibly separated under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
At the end of the day — or perhaps early Thursday morning — the committee is expected to report the bill to the House floor, likely along party lines. Republicans crafting the bill included restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood, the 2010 health care law, and other policy provisions that Democrats oppose.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, panned the process as a waste of time.
“The Senate is passing bipartisan bills and avoiding poison pill riders instead of, my friends, just wasting time on partisan bills with no chance of enactment,” Lowey said.
Lowey and other Democrats also took issue with the bill’s overall funding level. Since overall nondefense discretionary funding is set to increase by $18 billion for fiscal 2019 over the current year under an agreement on budget caps Congress reached earlier this year, Democrats argued that the Labor-HHS-Education measure should get at least $5 billion of that increase. That would be in proportion with the measure’s overall size and share of nondefense funding. Instead, the bill would provide around the same levels of funding as in fiscal 2018.
While the debate was often heated, there were bipartisan areas of agreement. A manager’s amendment to the bill was adopted by voice vote at the outset. It included language that would allow HHS to accept donations of things like medical supplies, clothing and school supplies for the unaccompanied children in HHS’ care. It would also require HHS to provide Congress with regular reports about how many migrant children it has in its care, how long they’ve been in custody, and their reunification status.
The amendment from Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut to require HHS to develop a formal strategy for reunifying the children with their families was adopted by voice vote. An amendment from Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, that would require siblings in HHS’ custody to remain together, was also adopted by voice vote. So was an amendment from Democratic Rep. Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, which would prevent HHS from administering any medications to a child in its custody unless he or she received a physical and mental health evaluation.
But the amendment on the Flores agreement from Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma faced more partisan debate before being adopted, 31-21. The amendment essentially mirrored language in one of the immigration bills that the House rejected in June, which would overturn the legal decision that the Trump administration argues is requiring it to separate families. While the amendment would allow families to stay together, it would also allow them to keep children in detention indefinitely.
“It creates a false choice,” DeLauro said. “Either we take the kids away or we jail everyone together.”
All committee Republicans voted for Cole’s amendment, joined by Henry Cuellar of Texas, the only Democrat to support it.
More for CDC, less for NIH
The manager’s amendment also moved money around within the bill, including providing an additional $50 million for programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around $75 million more for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Overall, the bill would provide around $6.9 billion for the CDC and $5.7 billion for SAMHSA, both increases over last year. Those increases would go to support, among other things, new programs aimed at promoting maternal and infant health, and enhanced surveillance for neurological diseases.
While on paper the CDC’s overall budget would be lower than in fiscal 2018, that’s because the bill would transfer funding for a strategic national stockpile of medical supplies elsewhere within HHS, and would increase funding for the stockpile. The bill would also establish an emergency use “infectious disease rapid response fund” for the CDC, and the manager’s amendment would provide $325 million for the fund, compared to $300 million in the original bill.
The increases were offset by some decreases at the National Institutes of Health, particularly at the National Cancer Institute, whose funding would go down $400 million compared to the original fiscal 2019 bill. But the $5.7 billion that the bill would provide now for NCI would still represent an increase over the $5.6 billion it received in fiscal 2018. Overall, the bill would still provide nearly $800 million more than the $37.1 billion NIH got in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending measure (PL 115-141).
The parties also sparred over an amendment from Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala. The amendment would prevent states from denying federal funding for child welfare services, such as adoption and foster care, to faith-based organizations because of their religious requirements such as stipulating children be placed with a married heterosexual couple, for example. While Republicans argued that current policy discriminates against religious organizations, Democrats argued that a change would result in discrimination of same-sex families or those of other faiths. It was adopted along party lines, 29-23.
The original draft bill would provide $71 billion for the Education Department overall, a $43 million increase over fiscal 2018. It would provide $12.1 billion for the Labor Department, an $89 million decrease compared to fiscal 2018, and $89.2 billion for the Health and Human Services Department, a $1.1 billion increase over fiscal 2018. The measure also funds the National Labor Relations Board.
Cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were a sore point for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who described several recent gruesome workplace injuries as the House proposed a $7.5 million or 1.4 percent cut to the agency. Her descriptions included a man who died after his legs were ground up in machinery he was using on the job.
Watch: Activists Play Audio of Separated Children in Front of White House