Senate Reaches Deal on Iran Vote, Plans to Continue Regular Order

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the chamber will continue its push to complete a handful of the 12 annual appropriations bills within the next several weeks.

First, the Kentucky Republican noted that the Senate will have to finish the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill currently under consideration. It has been held up over an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would prohibit the administration from buying heavy water from Iran.

Senate Democrats have already blocked procedural votes to end debate on the otherwise uncontroversial spending bill three times. They fear that Cotton’s amendment would be brought up after the procedural vote but before a vote on final passage — an interlude where Senate rules prohibit filibustering germane additions such as Cotton’s, which would thus give Republicans more leeway to include measures that Democrats find objectionable. The White House signaled it would veto the entire bill if the Cotton measure is included.

But McConnell has now scheduled a vote on the Cotton amendment before trying to end debate on the Energy and Water bill for a fourth time.

“Well we’re going to have that vote, there’s no way they can avoid it,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll either have it today, or we’ll have it tomorrow, and then we’re going to finish the bill.”

It’s a parliamentary move that would require the Arkansas Republican’s amendment to win 60 votes in order to be added to the bill. In other words, Cotton gets his vote, but Democrats will likely block it.

That appears to be an acceptable compromise for the minority. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Cotton has agreed to withdraw his measure if it does not get 60 votes.

“[Cotton] said he would withdraw the amendment if he didn’t win the cloture vote,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Then we’d move to other pending amendments, and I think there are only a handful left. I think we can get [the Energy and Water bill] done by next Monday.”

Once work is completed on the energy and water bill, McConnell said the chamber will consider a legislative package that combines a transportation and housing spending bill and a military and construction spending bill. After that comes the yearly defense authorization bill and the defense spending bill.

“We’ll move onto the transportation bill coupled with the military and construction as we continue our efforts to complete the appropriations process,” McConnell said. “And then we’re going to do the defense authorization bill, and then we’re going to bring up the defense appropriations bill and devote a lot of time to this.”

Durbin said he is “open” to combining the MilCon-VA and T-HUD spending measures together, especially since the military and construction bill appears to be the likeliest vehicle for passing an emergency funding package to combat the Zika virus.

“They think MilCon may be the vehicle. They tell me its germane to MilCon,” he said. But he admitted that he does not know for sure whether Senate rules allow lawmakers to attach emergency funding requests for this fiscal year, FY2016, to a bill that appropriates money for the next fiscal year, FY2017.

After the “minibus” of those two measures, the path forward becomes less clear. Whether Democrats permit a defense appropriations bill to move through the chamber without assurances that domestic spending bills also have a path forward remains an open question.

Last year, Senate Democrats allowed the defense policy bill — the National Defense Authorization Act — to pass, but they blocked the defense spending bill over objections to top line budget caps. The budget caps on defense and non-defense spending have been raised for the upcoming fiscal cycle. But, as they have in the past, Capitol Hill Democrats and the White House may be hesitant to allow the GOP’s main budget priority, defense, to become law ahead of Democratic spending priorities on domestic issues.