Senators fear budget standoff may sink spending bills 

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It’s only June, but appropriators are already talking about a CR.

The possibility of a continuing resolution is generally seen as a last-ditch scenario for appropriators, who pride themselves on working across the aisle to write the annual spending bills. But the increasingly knotty standoff between the two parties over the spending levels mandated by the GOP budget has some senators seeing another stopgap measure in the cards for September.

The dispute has repeatedly surfaced during the Senate Appropriations markups of the five spending bills that have moved through the committee so far, and will flare again as the panel takes up the Interior-environment and homeland security measures today. While largely backing the bills in committee, Democrats have pledged to filibuster the motions to proceed when the measures come to the floor, in an effort to force negotiations on replacing the spending caps imposed by the earlier sequester deal.

“So what I’m trying to do is to avoid the last-minute here comes Oct. 1 and we don’t know what we’re going to do, we’re tearing our hair out, we’re going to have another CR and we’ll see you at Christmas,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said during last week’s markup of the defense appropriations bill. “I don’t want to see that happen, and I hope no one else does. So what we’re trying to do is have this high-level, mature discussion now.”

But Republicans so far are showing no signs of hitting pause on the appropriations process to enter into politically fraught negotiations over replacing the sequester, despite President Obama’s recurring threat to veto any bills that hew to current spending caps.

“If we close the Senate down every time the president says he might veto a bill, we wouldn’t be here more than one day a month,” Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said last week in an interview with E&E Daily.

A CR threatens the carefully negotiated bipartisan spending bills, but it also “keeps the other 70 members of the Senate who are not on the Appropriations Committee from having any say in how we spend a trillion dollars,” said Alexander, who noted the Democratic-led Senate passed just three spending bills in five years. “So this is the sixth year in a row when the Democrats have basically not allowed the appropriations process to continue.”

The appropriations breakdown has been especially frustrating for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who’s been angling for regular order for that bill for years. She’s aiming to break that streak this afternoon, when her subcommittee is slated to mark up the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment bill.

Murkowski says the tight spending caps have been a challenge in writing the bill, but noted the budget pressures stem from issues beyond appropriators’ hands.

“It’s hard for us,” she said in an interview last week. “These discretionary programs and our opportunity to do what we need to do is really limited by what we have put in place by the caps. And it’s been limited because of that trend in spending on the mandatory side.”

Murkowski just sighed when asked about the prospects of another end-of-year CR. “I hope not,” she said. “CR is just a bad way to run a country.”

This week may provide some clues as to whether the Senate can right the appropriations process before it drifts too far off course. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled plans to turn to the defense appropriations bill, S. 1558, after finishing the annual defense authorization measure.

By bringing up the defense spending measure first, a Senate GOP aide says McConnell is aiming to test Democratic unity on blocking the spending bills by effectively daring them to vote against funding U.S. troops.

Should the gambit pay off, the next spending bill to come up may be the energy-water development spending bill, which Alexander noted contains about $19 billion in defense funds, as well. “So I think it would be a prime candidate for early consideration,” he said.

However, at least one Democratic senator — Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee — had no qualms over opposing the defense bill during last week’s appropriations markup. He joined with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in opposing the bill, even though the rest of his Democratic appropriators voted to advance it to the floor.

Democrats’ strategy for blocking the appropriations bills continues to be a bone of contention among Senate leaders, who exchanged shots on the floor last week over what McConnell called Democrats’ plans for a “summer of filibusters.”

In response, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged McConnell to return to his office and visit “his little bathroom there, open it and look in the mirror, because over that mirror, he should be able to see the words ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘cynicism.'”

With a key vote approaching for the defense authorization measure, McConnell yesterday continued to castigate Democrats for their filibuster threats, which he likened to denying U.S. troops benefits they’ve earned “if they can’t extract more tax dollars for bureaucracies like the IRS.”

And taking the “summer of filibusters” metaphor one step further, McConnell accused Democrats of packing a “dusty Winnebago with ‘bigger IRS or bust'” scrawled on the back.