Lawmakers may punt on major spending decisions

Source: George Cahlink, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 14, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected victory last week is complicating efforts to wrap up fiscal 2017 spending bills for nearly all of the government in the upcoming lame-duck session.

Congress needs to settle agency funding because it passed one of its fiscal 2017 appropriations bills — the military and veterans affairs measure — before the recess.

Lawmakers had been expected to tackle the 11 remaining ones — including those funding the Interior and Energy departments and U.S. EPA — between now and Dec. 9, when a temporary continuing resolution expires.

Another CR would leave most agencies operating for at least half of fiscal 2017, which began on Oct. 1, at fiscal 2016 levels with little room for fiscal maneuvering. They would also remain severely restricted from launching new programs or ending existing ones.

Still, conservative lawmakers like the idea of limiting the Democratic administration in its final months and are pressing GOP leaders to pass another stopgap funding measure that runs into the spring.

Under that approach, the GOP-controlled Congress could finalize fiscal 2017 spending with a Republican in the White House rather than having to compromise with President Obama. It would almost certainly mean funding cuts and a reordering of priorities to match GOP policy goals.

“Given voters’ unmistakable call for fiscal responsibility this week, it would be inappropriate to negotiate a lame-duck spending deal with President Obama and [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry Reid, which would further jeopardize the nation’s fiscal health at a time when the American people expect us to exhibit fiscal discipline,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of more than 170 House conservatives.

Outside conservative groups, including Heritage Action for America, also have pressed for a similar punt on final funding decisions.

“Congress should not negotiate any massive spending deal with President Obama; instead, they should pass a simple continuing resolution into the next year,” said Michael Needham, the group’s CEO.

Conservatives have said another stopgap measure could last until late March or April to give the administration time to get up and running before entering into spending negotiations.

Flores said the CR should be largely “clean,” containing only a policy rider that would block the Obama administration from issuing any new regulations in its final weeks.

‘Matter for discussion’

Republican leaders, however, are not yet on board with the plan from conservatives, which would face opposition from Senate Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that his priorities for the lame duck included moving an omnibus spending bill and medical innovation legislation, known as the “21st Century Cures Act.”

“We would like to finish funding the government this year. Exactly how to achieve that over a three-week period is always a matter for discussion,” said McConnell, adding that he would be talking about options with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Obama.

Ryan, who before the general election had favored finishing spending work in the lame duck, is in a trickier position now with conservatives seeking a delay.

The House is expected to hold leadership elections tomorrow, and some conservatives have suggested Ryan might face a challenge from the right for distancing himself from Trump during the campaign.

However, Ryan has embraced Trump since his unexpected victory, and conservative concerns over the speaker have become more muted.

Ryan might bend to conservatives on a CR to help ensure he will keep his gavel. It also could serve as an olive branch to the incoming Trump administration.

GOP and Democratic Appropriations committee aides in both chambers said they would prefer an omnibus in the lame duck, noting that staff members have made progress over the break in ironing out differences between each chamber’s spending bills. Aides say they continue to work toward having an 11-bill spending deal to be ready by the Dec. 9 deadline.

Emergency funding

The White House, meanwhile, intensified its bid for a omnibus last week by asking Congress to attach $11.6 billion in emergency funding.

The money would be split between Afghanistan war needs and other aid to the State and Defense departments to fight the Islamic State group and deal with the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East.

The administration is betting that by adding funding for national security, it can get support from Republican hawks for an omnibus. Some GOP lawmakers have worried that the military cannot wait until the spring to get more money.

A senior House appropriations aide said the committee “will carefully and thoroughly consider the [supplemental] request, especially since it would affect our national security.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, in a statement called the supplemental request “bipartisan,” stressing that the dollars would go for both defense and non-defense needs overseas and keep diplomatic, intelligence and military personnel safe.

With 60 voters likely needed to move any spending measure, Senate Democrats could still push for an omnibus by blocking a CR. However, it seems unlikely they would be willing to force a government shutdown.

Stan Collender, an executive vice president with the Qorvis MSLGROUP who is an expert on fiscal issues, said there is a 75 percent chance Congress will pass a CR rather than an omnibus.

He said Republicans could address national security spending by attaching the emergency request to the CR that would run into next spring.

“There is no reason for them to rush with a Republican moving into the White House,” said Collender, who said he expects the GOP would then rewrite the bills with steeper cuts.

G. William Hoagland, a longtime budget and appropriations staffer on Capitol Hill and now senior vice president with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said a delay risks muddying the agenda for Trump’s first 100 days with a spending fight.

He said the next Congress always could make changes in funding via targeted cuts if it were to move an omnibus in December.

“They should get it out of the way now,” Hoagland added.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.