November 6, 2015 at 3:15 pm ET
The Coming Week: Time to Finish Up Appropriations
With little over a month until current federal funding runs dry, the stalled appropriations process has finally begun in earnest.
Republican appropriators in the House and Senate have agreed on provisional top-line numbers for the twelve subcommittees responsible for writing the government’s spending bills, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday. Those numbers should allow negotiators to build a year-end spending bill, called an omnibus, ahead of a Dec. 11 deadline. McConnell has said for months that he will ensure that lawmakers avoid a government shutdown. The allocations mark the next step in the process to do so.
Last week, both the House and Senate passed a two-year budget deal that authorized $50 billion in additional spending for 2016, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. The budget framework also provides $16 billion in contingency funds for the Defense and State departments.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) greeted the GOP allocations with tempered enthusiasm Thursday. “Frankly, they’re not bad,” he said. “They’re not perfect, but they’re OK.”
Reid and his leadership team warned that avoiding a spending showdown between Republicans and Democrats would hinge on the types of policy proposals that Republicans seek to include on the omnibus bill. “Republicans should know that if they try to sneak in poison pill riders, they will be forcing a government shutdown, plain and simple,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Many GOP members, frustrated with what they deemed as a budget deal that catered to Democratic priorities, hope to win concessions on a range of policy priorities in the omnibus negotiations.
Exactly which proposals Republicans intend to bring to the table remains a mystery, in no small part because House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has insisted that the members of his GOP conference get to weigh in. “Things are going to be done a little differently around here,” Ryan said last week. “We are going to open up this process.”
At his first weekly press conference Thursday, Ryan told reporters that, as part of that effort, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) would hold a series of executive sessions to give House Republicans a chance to give their views on five appropriations bills that have yet to reach the House floor.
Six of the twelve appropriations bills have already passed the House. Another, which would pay for the government’s interior and environmental programs, had to be pulled off the House floor abruptly in July amid an uproar over Confederate flag-banning amendments.
An aide to Rogers described the executive meetings as “internal listening sessions” designed to give the subcommittee chairmen the chance to educate and solicit feedback from rank-and-file members who are not usually privy to spending negotiations. The aide added the sessions would likely take place the week of Nov. 16, when the House returns from a week-long Veteran’s Day recess.
In addition to the listening sessions, Ryan said his whip team is taking members’ temperatures to determine whether one or more of the remaining appropriations bills should be put on the floor for a vote. That would offer another way for members to provide input before an omnibus is finalized.
Ryan cautioned that the appropriations process will be up in the air for a while. “Because we want to bring the Article I powers back — the power of the purse — back to the legislative branch, we’re trying to figure out exactly how to do that,” Ryan said.
But time is short. Even though appropriators have five calendar weeks to haggle over funding provisions, the House is only scheduled to be in session for 12 days ahead of Dec. 11. And McConnell will need to block out several days to allow for the final legislation to work its way through the ponderous Senate.
Democrats were happy enough with progress on the omnibus Thursday that they voted to allow consideration of one spending bill on the military construction and veterans affairs. Up until then, Democrats had blocked all spending bills in protest of a GOP budget plan that did not equitably fund defense and non-defense priorities.
That held true as late as Thursday morning, when Democrats, citing concerns that McConnell would renege on his budget deal, prevented a defense appropriations bill from coming to the Senate floor for the third time this year. They argued that passing the military construction bill carried less of a risk because it contains spending provisions for both military and domestic programs.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) called those fears “delusional.”
But by passing that military construction bill this week, the Senate will likely lay the groundwork for expedited consideration of the final year-end spending legislation. Both Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters they expect that measure to be the legislative vehicle to move the omnibus.
The House is not in session this week. Senators will return Monday afternoon to continue consideration of the military construction appropriations bill. They could leave town as early as Tuesday.
Negotiations over a six-year highway reauthorization bill have entered their final phase after the House passed a multi-year transportation measure. Next up, a conference committee to hash out differences between that bill and a highway bill the Senate passed in July.
The two bills have different policy provisions, but they largely use the same $35 billion in offsets to replenish the nation’s highway accounts. That’s enough money to keep the fund solvent for three years.
The major difference in offsets came with last-minute amendment to the House bill to drain the Federal Reserve’s surplus account. If enacted in place of two other Senate-passed highway offsets — a Fed dividend cut for major banks and a delay in expected cuts to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s guarantee fees on mortgages — the Congressional Budget Office projects the bill would add another $40 billion to the highway trust fund, according to the amendment’s sponsors.
A cash influx of that size would provide surface transportation certainty for a few years beyond current projections, something that hasn’t happened since 2005. But it’s unclear how senators will react to the Fed proposal, which overwhelmingly passed in the House.
Conferees have until Nov. 20 to get a compromise highway bill to the president’s desk before the current highway authorization expires.
President Obama announced Friday that the United States would reject TransCanada’s request to build the Keystone XL pipeline, ending a seven-year review process. His decision represents a victory for environmentalists, who have long opposed the pipeline.
Nonetheless, Obama’s decision is sure to become campaign fodder for Republicans and other proponents of the pipeline. Newly minted House Speaker Paul Ryan called the decision “sickening.” GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio promised, “When I’m president, Keystone will be approved.”
The push to investigate ExxonMobil for alleged suppression of climate change research is growing. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation after several Democrats, including the leading presidential contenders, called for accountability. However, the relevant GOP congressional committee chairmen have been silent on the issue.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said that it will finalize its the amount of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels that can be blended into America’s gas supply by Nov. 30. The EPA proposed new levels in late May.
In its initial proposal, the EPA aggravated Congress, corn growers, and other supporters of the Renewable Fuel Standard by proposing lower levels than those that Congress recommended.
The push to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act is still stalled, held up by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who want to add a permanent re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund as an amendment.
Burr and Ayotte’s path forward just got more complicated. One of the LWCF’s chief critics, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), has unveiled a proposal to retool the fund. Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, wants to give more money to states and restrict the federal government’s ability to buy land.
Kentucky is often lauded as a major success story of the Affordable Care Act. Now it will be the test case for rolling back the law after Kentucky voters elected Obamacare foe Matt Bevin to be governor. Bevin has promised to roll back the Obamacare programs responsible for the state’s growth in insured people. He plans to dismantle the state’s popular online exchange, Kynect, and alter the state’s Medicaid program to include cost-sharing provisions for beneficiaries.
The Kentucky gubernatorial election is seen as a major win for Republicans in Congress, who are trying to pass a bill repealing key parts of the Obamacare. Senate Republicans are waiting to vote on a House-passed package that would repeal Obamacare’s insurance mandates and two taxes that are unpopular with industry groups. Rumor has it the measure has run into procedural problems in the Senate, and McConnell hasn’t announced a time for a vote. To stay within Senate rules, the bill would leave in place the health law’s Medicaid expansion and Independent Payment Advisory Board.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Food and Drug Administration commissioner nominee, Robert Califf, on Nov. 17.
The light workweek in Congress could lead to a stutter for legislation that has just been gaining momentum. A bill, S. 2044, that would nullify ‘gag clauses’ in online consent forms has received vocal support from Republicans, Democrats, and advocates. Some companies now use them to sue or fine customers who negatively review them online. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) expects the committee to vote on the bill this month.
A committee aide said there wouldn’t be any activity this week because of Veteran’s Day.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) continues her quest to get her ‘dig-once’ legislation moving. It would require states to assess the need to install pipes for broadband connections when digging up roads for any federally funded construction.
Her bill, H.R. 3805, didn’t make it into a highway-funding bill as an amendment. With 38 cosponsors from both parties, and support from tech experts, the measure has some traction. But Eshoo will have to find a way to work it through the Energy and Commerce Committee, which probably will delay it until next year.
Berin Szoka, president of Washington-based think tank Tech Freedom, said Eshoo’s bill is a “no-brainer.”
The Export-Import Bank is on the cusp of being reauthorized following its inclusion in both the House and Senate versions of the highway bill. The bank will be reauthorized for five years as part of bill, which is still waiting for a conference agreement.
Still, the bank is not totally out of the woods. Due to an insufficient number of board members, its ability to issue loans above $10 million dollars may be limited until the Senate Banking Committee acts on pending nominations. The lack of board members is of major concern to corporations like Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., the top recipients of Ex-Im financing.
The Banking Committee has not voted on any of the nominations before it during this Congress, owing to a stalemate between Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and the Obama administration over the appointment of a Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Supervision. Further complicating matters, Shelby is an opponent of Ex-Im.