Senate Democrats on Tuesday officially ended a months-long blockade of spending bills when the upper chamber voted overwhelmingly to approve funding for veterans programs. This legislation will now serve as the foundation for an omnibus spending bill that leaders expect to pass in December.
The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill passed the Senate in a 93 to 0 vote just in time for Veterans Day on Wednesday. The legislation is the first spending bill to pass both the House and Senate this year, coming weeks after Congress passed a bipartisan budget deal that sets spending caps for the next two years. Now Congress must complete work on appropriations legislation that allocates those funds for the rest of fiscal 2016 before the current stop-gap spending measure runs out on Dec. 11.
“It looks more and more like we’re going to have an omnibus by December 11,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), adding that Republican leaders may still hold more votes on individual spending bills in the meantime. “I think it’s helpful to show that the Senate can function by moving appropriation bills.”
Democrats say they want to stay focused on the long-term plan. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on Tuesday that Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations committee, is making progress in negotiations with Republicans and will continue to work while the rest of Congress is in recess.
Democrats on Tuesday were eager to vote for the bill ahead of Veterans Day and said the legislation had the added benefit of setting the foundation for the Senate to quickly introduce an omnibus bill once those broader negotiations are complete. Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Democrats to agree on one House-passed spending bill that they would support so it could serve as a vehicle for the other 11 annual spending bills that have yet to be enacted.
“Mitch said he needed a vehicle, we gave it to him,” Schumer said.
Using a bill that has passed both chambers as the basis for the omnibus reduces the number of procedural hurdles the final package will have to clear.
Schumer said the agreement with McConnell only applied to the veterans’ legislation. Democrats are focused now on making sure the omnibus does not include any a controversial policy provisions, such as language cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood or rolling back environment regulations.
“We’ll never have time to do bill by bill,” Schumer said. “Soon you’re going to run into riders and you can’t negotiate on riders bill by bill.”
Democrats worry that conservatives in both the House and the Senate will attempt to use the must-pass spending bill to force votes on issues like Obamacare, immigration and financial regulation.
Republican leaders may have worked out a way to allow their members to cast symbolic votes to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood and repeal large portions of Obamacare outside of the spending bills through House-passed budget reconciliation legislation.
Reconciliation bills are considered under special rules that require only a simple majority for passage, meaning the legislation cannot be filibustered in the Senate.
There is still chance the reconciliation bill could fail. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) do not support the legislation because it does not completely repeal Obamacare.
But if it were to pass, using the reconciliation process would allow Republicans to keep the fights over Obamacare and Planned Parenthood separate from must-pass spending legislation while still forcing a veto fight with the president as conservatives want.
“We’re not talking about making law here, we’re talking about demonstrating with clarity whose side we’re on and whose side the Obamacare proponents are on,” Cornyn said