Spending Cuts Package Faces Uncertain Senate Fate

Narrow House passage, senatorial skepticism could make for rough road

Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, gavels in a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Dirksen Building on the FY2019 budget request for the Interior Department on May 10, 2018. Murkowski is dubious of the administration's rescissions package, saying that is the purview of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A nearly $15 billion package of spending cuts is now in the Senate’s court after the House late Thursday voted 210-206 to pass the “rescissions” measure.

Most Republicans voted to narrowly put the cuts package over the top, though there were 19 GOP defections. Democrats voted unanimously against the measure.

The $14.7 billion collection of cuts from unspent funding will now head to the Senate, where some Republicans, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have sounded skeptical of the rescissions effort. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee, said Thursday that she and other GOP appropriators think the White House is intruding on the committee’s turf.

“This is what we do as appropriators, so the fact that the administration is kind of coming in and swooping in to the legislative role and the appropriators’ role more directly . . . is this what we want to do?” she asked. “I don’t have a problem saying that I don’t think this is their authority.”

Murkowski said her concerns about rescinding Children’s Health Insurance Program funds, particularly $1.9 billion in cuts slated for the program’s contingency funds states can tap in the event of an unanticipated funding crunch, have been resolved. She spoke with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, as well as Alaska officials who told her there is enough money remaining in the program.

Still, she added, Senate Majority LeaderMitch McConnell “has suggested that this is going to be very difficult.”

McConnell, R-Ky., has given few clues about what the Senate will do with the rescissions bill, other than waiting for the House to act first. A number of conservative senators filed their own version of the legislation last month.

The Senate has until June 22 before crucial procedural protections for the legislation will expire. Under the 1974 budget law setting up the presidential rescissions process, the Senate can pass a package of spending cuts with a simple majority within 45 days of continuous legislative session from the day the president submitted his rescissions request to Congress, which was May 8.

House Debate

On the House floor Thursday, Republicans framed the rescissions package as a modest but necessary first step toward bringing down annual deficits.

“It’s common sense that money sitting in federal coffers and not being spent should be returned to the Treasury,” said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and a candidate to succeed retiring House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who sponsored the rescissions package, called it a “long overdue budgetary spring cleaning.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated most of the funds would not be spent anyway. CBO on Thursday said the package would rescind $14.7 billion in budget authority but would reduce actual spending, or “outlays,” by just $1.1 billion over a decade.

The CBO has previously said no children would lose health insurance as a result of the CHIP cuts, which total $7 billion including the contingency fund reduction. But some Republicans nonetheless felt pressure to oppose the measure given Democratic political attacks and the midterm elections just five months away.

Earlier Thursday, the House adopted a rule for floor consideration that incorporated certain changes to the rescissions plan requested by the White House, removing $515 million in previously requested cuts. The amendment removed or scaled back several of the specific rescissions in the original request, like leftover funds that had been appropriated in the past to combat the Ebola virus abroad.

Democrats said the spending cuts would still prove harmful and would not make a noticeable impact on annual deficits, especially compared to other major tax and spending legislation Congress has passed recently, like last year’s landmark GOP tax code overhaul.

“After spending nearly $2 trillion on tax cuts for the super-rich and blowing up the deficit, the majority’s bill is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “Republicans are trying to trick the American people into thinking they care about fiscal responsibility.”

They also complained about the expedited process and the lack of committee consideration of the bill.

“We’ve had no hearings, no markups or even any debate at all on this bill in the Appropriations Committee,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, top Democrat on the panel. “And we are considering it with no opportunity to debate the merits of each of these rescissions on their own.”

Appropriators on both sides have said cutting the unspent funds in a standalone package could make the regular fiscal 2019 appropriations process more difficult, because they frequently use rescissions to free up space under the budget caps for additional spending elsewhere.

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