Lawmakers aim to assemble omnibus package by end of month

Source: Geof Koss and George Cahlink, E&E News reporters • Posted: Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Appropriators on both sides of the Capitol are angling to wrap up negotiations over fiscal 2017 spending bills by the end of this month and then assemble them into a massive, omnibus spending package.

Lawmakers believe that is the best way to provide agencies with fresh spending for the final six months of the current fiscal year.

An omnibus would also avoid a government shutdown when a stopgap funding measure, also known as a continuing resolution, expires on April 28.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said yesterday he hopes the defense spending bill the House passed this week will help avoid a second CR.

“We have the defense approps bill ready, coming over from House,” he said. “We hope it’s a vehicle for other appropriations bills.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, said the spending panels are working toward having differences over the remaining bills settled by March 29.

Cole said the deadline, which he said was not official, would leave both the House and Senate a month to send the president a final package before funding runs out.

“Most of these bills are done, this should have been finished in November and December,” said Cole, adding that GOP leaders held off to get input from the new administration.

Cole, however, said President Trump’s team has offered no guidance on fiscal 2017 spending because many senior positions remain unfilled.

“They are not ready to do it,” said Cole, noting the same would be true for any new administration.

Another top appropriator, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), also called it a “distinct possibility” that defense would carry the other 10 spending bills, including those that fund the Energy and Interior departments and U.S. EPA.

Dent said it would avoid agencies having limited funding flexibility under a CR that would keep fiscal 2016 levels in place. An omnibus would also allow Congress to get moving on fiscal 2018 spending, he said.

Some assembly required

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who leads the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said yesterday that she was “absolutely” pushing to include a spending bill from her panel in an omnibus should one materialize.

“I sat down with my team yesterday, and every assumption is that we are going to be out there” with a bill for debate, Murkowski said.

However, she called it “premature” to say Democrats are on board with the push. “We’re going to be sitting down with folks over the next couple of weeks and just kind of walk through what we’ve got to walk through,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee, said this week he hoped to reach a deal on funding EPA and Interior and avoid another CR.

“My guess is whatever we do this year to finish will be a pretty good baseline on where the House and Senate are, especially if we do not do a CR,” he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said he and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are confident they can reach a deal to fund the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers.

“I think we could conference very quickly with the House of Representatives and be ready to go,” Alexander said yesterday in an interview.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), ranking member on the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed that lawmakers could easily settle an energy spending measure.

But, she said, moving it in an omnibus would limit scrutiny and leave less room for Democrats to make changes to specific programs.

“That’s what we are afraid of,” said Kaptur, warning that GOP leaders could summarily decide on what cuts they want to make.

Wild card

A wild card in spending talks could be how Republicans respond to Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request, expected next week, which will seek an increase of $54 billion for defense activities and an equal amount of cuts from domestic programs. Democrats also continue to draw the line on what they call “poison pill” riders.

Republican appetite for major spending cuts is unclear at this point, Durbin said. “I haven’t heard much,” he said. “I don’t know how far they’ll go.”

He decried the rumored 97 percent cut for Great Lakes restoration efforts at EPA as a “serious mistake.” The administration has suggested the work can be better handled at the state level.

“I think that a battle will ensue,” Durbin said. “I don’t know if all the Great Lakes senators and congressmen coming together will make a difference, but I think it’s a very strong bipartisan issue.”

Kaptur said she too is “very worried” about fiscal 2018 cuts, particularly for environment programs. She said there is a need for a strong federal role in the Great Lakes.

Possible cuts to the Great Lakes program was among the items New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) protested in a letter yesterday to White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that threatened legal action if EPA does not meet statutory requirements.

“Please know that — whether by starving the Agency’s budget and depleting and demoralizing its workforce, or through willful ignorance — if the EPA falters in meeting its legal obligations to ensure a clean, safe, and healthy environment for New Yorkers, I will not hesitate to use the full power of my office to force the agency to meet those obligations and to hold polluters accountable for violations of New York State and federal law,” Schneiderman wrote.