“The basic work of the Senate and the Congress and the House is to pass the funding bills,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week. “That’s what we’re going to be doing here from now until July 15th.”
The progress so far on appropriations work is notable when compared with recent years when contentious stalemates over spending became the Senate norm, necessitating tense year-end budget deals crafted with the threat of a government shutdown hanging overhead. It becomes even more notable when compared with the House’s inability to agree on what to do with its spending bills due to internal squabbling among Republicans over the budget cap for the 12 annual appropriations bills.
Senate Democrats have cautiously embraced the sudden outbreak of bipartisanship, but their support for spending bills is contingent on Republicans avoiding any politically motivated “poison pill” amendments. The process already stalled briefly over Democrats’ objections to a GOP amendment that would have reopened the fight over the Iran nuclear deal, forcing McConnell to intervene.
The success of the energy and water spending bill was a minor victory for McConnell, who has pointed to a smooth appropriations process this year as a marker of good governance.
The progress in the Senate doesn’t mean Congress will be unable to avoid having to once again pass a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30 to buy time for final spending negotiations later in the year. The Senate is also unlikely to pass all 12 individual bills, but even completing work on a handful would mark a stark contrast with the past few years.
Troubles in the House also mean that Congress will likely be forced to again assemble a large year-end spending bill. This approach receives criticism because they are called up for a vote before they can be heavily scrutinized by members and the public.
House Republican leaders are still hoping to settle differences with a group of conservatives who are unwilling to back an additional $30 billion in funding that Republican and Democratic leaders agreed to last year, but a deal has proved elusive despite weeks of negotiations.
House Republicans spent much of a Wednesday conference meeting fighting about a budget — nearly one month after the statutory deadline for approving a spending blueprint passed.
House GOP leaders plan to begin voting on spending bills next week even without a budget, a move that could anger conservatives. The plan is to begin consideration of funding for military construction and veterans’ programs, typically one of the least controversial of the annual appropriations bills.
Republicans generally support this spending, but it’s unclear if conservatives will support the measure given the broader budget fight they are engaged in with leadership.
“I can’t say yet,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Huelskamp said the Freedom Caucus hasn’t landed on a joint position on the spending bills, but he said the overwhelming preference is to cut mandatory spending and pass a budget first. Huelskamp said he’s worried that if the budget framework isn’t adopted soon, Democrats will use a year-end spending bill to try to drive up spending even further.
“I’m worried about an omnibus,’ He said.
Many hard-line conservatives, led by the approximately 40-member House Freedom Caucus, want the budget framework to include cuts to mandatory spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Leaders have so far refused to abandon the spending increases included in the bipartisan agreement that was approved last year.
The spending civil war has had Republicans running in circles for months, and the constant bickering has even divided conservatives who started the budget fight in the first place.
“I would love to have a budget,” said Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.). “At some point we just have to throw our hands up and say maybe we’re not going to agree on this one.”
Mulvaney said it may not be realistic for the House to try to adopt a budget once House leaders move ahead with spending bills.
For now, the Senate plans to complete as many spending bills as it can with or without the House.
“I’m optimistic we’re going to get a lot of appropriation bills done,” McConnell said last week. “We’re going to spend a lot of time on it between now and the time we break for the conventions.”