Will Democrats and Republicans really play nice on debating federal spending in an election year?
At least for the moment, hope springs eternal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"I'm glad that Senate Democrats share my goal of considering appropriations bills in an expeditious fashion through the regular order," the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. "Earlier this year, I asked the Appropriations Committee to accelerate their work so that we can be ready to consider individual bills as soon as mid-April."
Under the budget law, that could be as early as April 15. As a practical matter, that means the Senate could begin considering spending bills for the next fiscal year not long after the annual break for Easter, even if the Senate Budget Committee does not move forward with a formal budget resolution.
Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., punted on putting forward a budget framework this month, leading Senate Democrats to write McConnell and push him to begin the process of piecing together the dozen government funding bills as soon as possible.
At least for a moment, the two sides seem to share the same goal.
Top Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent a letter Monday asking McConnell to begin the appropriations process, and adhere to the top-line spending levels agreed to in the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law in November 2015. That deal allowed for $1.07 trillion in spending in fiscal year 2017.
"These decisions mean there is no need to wait for adoption of another budget resolution before the Appropriations Committee decides how to divide resources among its subcommittees and allows those subcommittees to get to work," the Democratic leaders wrote of the budget agreement. Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Patty Murray of Washington, Charles E. Schumer of New York, and Appropriations ranking member Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland also signed the letter.
In a bit of a break from tradition, there's no reason to expect the Senate will wait for the House to consider the individual spending bills, potentially using House-passed spending vehicles from fiscal 2016 that have yet to become law to work around procedural objections that could come up on the other side of the building.
The letter from the Democratic leadership came shortly after Enzi announced his committee would not be considering a budget resolution this month. Such resolutions serve as a framework for the appropriations process, allocating funds for the House and Senate Appropriations committees to spend. It is possible that the Senate panel could still debate a resolution. It is also possible that any budget resolution that the House passes could be taken up directly by the Senate after April 1.
But House Republicans are struggling to find consensus on the matter , with conservatives balking at spending levels set by the bipartisan budget agreement, which was brokered by former Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, as one of his last acts in Congress.
Republicans want to retain the ability to use reconciliation instructions, which allow passage of changes to entitlements, the tax code and the like without having to navigate the usual procedural obstacles in the Senate. They would especially like to retain the use of reconciliation for the next president if that person is a Republican, because that president could use them to advance an agenda before the next budget and spending process gets under way.
"The Senate Budget Committee will continue to discuss the budget as well as improvements to the budget process that would increase fiscal honesty, stability in government operations and the ability to help govern our nation," Enzi said in a statement Monday morning. "The Senate already has top-line numbers and budget enforcement features available this year so that a regular order appropriations process can move forward while we continue to discuss broader budget challenges."
Moving forward with so-called regular order on the appropriations process means considering 12 separate spending bills, rather than folding them all into an omnibus spending package at the end of the year. McConnell has repeatedly said that returning to regular order on appropriations is one of his top priorities this year. The last time all 12 spending bills were signed into law was in 1994.
In their letter, the Democratic leaders said they would like to move forward with regular order, but warned McConnell against allowing any "poison pill" policy riders that could threaten support. Republican appropriators in the Senate are aware that any regular order spending bills will need to get 60 votes to overcome Democratic filibuster threats on the floor, meaning the bills may not be to liking of many Senate Republicans.
"As we see it, restoring the regular order promises not only a more open and transparent process, but a chance for senators on both sides of the aisle to participate meaningfully in funding decisions," the Democratic leaders wrote, most of whom are veterans of the Appropriations Committee. "This is a win-win opportunity, and we should seize it together."
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