Optimism is building that Congress may send a handful of spending bills to the White House in September — avoiding the need for the entire federal government to operate under a stopgap during the fall and lowering the odds that a lame-duck Congress will resort to a 12-bill omnibus.
That hope is tempered, however, by the uphill climb to negotiate compromise versions of several spending bills that either have passed both chambers already or seem likely to by the end of this week. And the two chambers look to be headed for an impasse over border wall funding that could dominate the post-midterm session.
Congress has just 11 legislative days remaining when both chambers are scheduled to be in session before the fiscal year ends. Leaders in both chambers have already acknowledged the need for a continuing resolution to tide them over. But there’s still only 35 combined legislative days left before the end of the calendar year — not a lot of time given the mountain of work that remains to be done.
Both chambers got off to fast starts on the fiscal 2019 spending bills. The House has hit the halfway mark, passing six of the 12 bills. The Senate has passed three, but is primed to pass an additional four spending bills this week as part of a $154.2 billion package. If that happens, it will mark the most productive burst of appropriations activity on the Senate floor before the annual August break since 2000.
The House has already left town for the recess, giving senators who will stay in session for much of the month a chance to run up the score. In fact, this year’s swift movement is so unusual for the Senate that Roll Call couldn’t find another instance of that chamber jumping ahead of the House in passing spending bills dating back to 1976, when the start of the fiscal year moved from July 1 to Oct. 1.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, who has served on the committee since 1977, couldn’t resist a little dig at the House. “I know it’s difficult for the House because they are taking a five-week vacation, but I would hope some of them would stay around long enough so we could conference the bills,” the Vermont Democrat said.
Even some veteran House appropriators are looking at their colleagues in the “other body” with grudging respect.
“I’m especially thrilled with the Senate, which for the first time in many years is making real progress on passing bills, which will greatly enhance our chances of getting these bills passed in both bodies,” said Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, who previously chaired the full committee where he has served since 1983.
The House still has bragging rights when it comes to the amount of spending moved to date, however. The chamber has passed $881 billion thus far, mainly because of the massive $675 billion Defense bill, making up two-thirds of the total fiscal 2019 discretionary pie. The Senate, if it can pass its Defense measure combined with the largest domestic spending bill — Labor-HHS-Education — after the break, will have jumped ahead on the money front as well, with $1.16 trillion, or 87 percent of discretionary spending, passed in that chamber.
The House in September, in addition to taking up the necessary stopgap measure, could turn to a few more spending bills. Candidates include the Transportation-HUD and Agriculture measures, in order to be able to conference with the Senate on their four-bill package. But conservatives have balked at the Transportation-HUD bill in particular, leaving the path forward uncertain.
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Complicating efforts to reach final agreement on the bills passed by each chamber are ongoing negotiations about how much of the available spending under the fiscal 2019 budget caps should be allocated to each of the 12 bills.
The two chambers’ original “302(b)” allocations set up some bills for an easier path to success than others. For example, the two chambers are basically in lockstep at $97.1 billion for Military Construction-VA spending. But others are much further apart. The biggest gulf is between the Homeland Security panels, with a $3.1 billion difference between the House’s $51.4 billion version and the Senate’s $48.3 billion bill.
The final set of subcommittee spending levels was supposed to be agreed to last Friday, but talks continue. And without a final set of toplines, conferees on a three-bill package including the Military Construction-VA, Legislative Branch and Energy-Water measures — the latter with a $934 million difference between the chambers — can’t determine the final trade-offs they need to make on programs, projects and activities funded in the bills.
Despite the temporary roadblock, appropriators are optimistic that they’ll have some of the bills signed into law before fiscal 2019 begins on Oct. 1.
North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said he believes the work completed so far and the plans to continue in August put the Senate “in a good position” with the House to complete work on several of the bills before Sept. 30.
“Obviously, we would like to get them all done and conferenced. But, given the time constraints, I don’t know that we’ll get all 12 up and conferenced,” said Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, chairman of the House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “When we come back in September we should be able to pass a conference report on at least six, so that sets us up in good shape.”
In addition to settling the vast differences in spending levels and policy between the House and Senate bills, congressional leaders will also have to convince Trump to sign a few of the spending bills. While signs coming out of a White House meeting last week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul D. Ryan were positive, no one really seems to know how to predict how Trump will react.
“It makes it complicated,” Simpson said. “So, we’ll see.”