Spending talks off to a slow start

Source: Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Senate Democrats yesterday pressed for faster negotiations on a long-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown after current appropriations run out on Dec. 11.

Republican leaders, while speaking optimistically about such talks, focused on criticizing Democrats for blocking spending bills under widely unpopular caps and blasted President Obama for threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the veto threat was “truly outrageous.” Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “shameful.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) countered that running the government through continuing spending resolutions is also harmful to national security. “It will hurt us,” Durbin said. “It will jeopardize readiness.”

Even though many Democrats voted to move forward with the NDAA yesterday, party leaders defended the president’s posture, saying defense spending increases must be coupled with hikes in domestic spending. It’s a key demand ahead of expected negotiations.

Multiple Democratic leaders stressed that time is of the essence to reach an agreement.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, said, “We need to get into serious negotiations now.” Durbin said, “I don’t know what Senator McConnell is waiting for.” And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “We don’t have much time.”

While Republicans were closemouthed about any progress, Reid said discussions were ongoing at the staff level to keep the government open past December.

He said congressional Democrats and Republicans, plus the White House, would have to agree on new spending offsets and address policy riders. Committee-passed spending bills include several provisions to undo or roll back Obama administration energy and environment priorities.

“We’re not there yet,” Reid said about the progress in negotiations.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also said time was a concern. “I want a budget agreement by November 1 so we can work on an omnibus sooner rather than later,” she said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said, “We hope that things go well and we can consider the bill in a timely way.”

Even with the prospect of a broad omnibus spending package, McConnell this week floated the possibility of considering the 12 pending spending bills in four different mini-packages.

He also pushed to move forward with legislation to fund the Department of Energy and agencies tied to water development (Greenwire, Oct. 6). Democrats will likely block consideration.

However, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, an independent-minded member of the Democratic team, would like to see the Senate debate a bill that includes spending for fossil fuel research projects.

“I was against my Democratic caucus’s approach,” he said. “They’re not taking into account that over 80 percent of energy is produced by fossil and if you really want to do something, don’t be a denier.”

In the House, Democrats and moderate Republicans were looking to move key pieces of legislation under the lame-duck tenure of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is resigning at the end of the month. Perhaps the chamber could move on a budget deal, reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States or raising the debt limit, some members thought.

But House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who had backed budget negotiations, was uncertain about what could happen in the House. “I don’t know,” he said to questions from reporters and suggested the Senate is taking the lead with budget talks. “We’re in the early stages here.”

Asked whether the House would pass a two-year budget agreement under Boehner, as some members have hoped, Rodgers said, “That would be helpful. The sooner, the better.”

Reporters Geof Koss, Hannah Northey and Jean Chemnick contributed.