Policy

Watershed Moment as Three Appropriations Bills Clear on Time

House voted 377-20, sending legislation to the president’s desk

The U.S. Capitol building as seen on Friday, June 15, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A batch of three spending bills is on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk following a 377-20 House vote Thursday, marking the first on-time delivery of a quarter of the annual appropriations measures in a decade.

The $147.5 billion package — which funds the departments of Energy and Veterans Affairs, the Army Corps of Engineers and the operations of Congress — is the first installment of what lawmakers hope will be nine bills becoming law before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. 

The Senate adopted the conference report on the three-bill package Wednesday on a 92-5 vote.

Trump, who has hinted at a possible government shutdown throughout the year, is expected to sign the legislation into law, according to a statement released by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday.

House debate was overwhelmingly bipartisan. Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., expressed “deep gratitude” to the subcommittee chairs and ranking members as well as the “service, support and friendship” of full committee ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y. “It is a product of months of negotiations between the House and Senate,” he said, adding it final produce is a “responsible compromise.”

Lowey returned the pleasantries, saying that she appreciates the “hard work” of her friend.

Nuclear waste, veterans health care

Reaching agreement on these three spending bills was no easy task.

In addition to settling the spending level differences between the House and Senate, negotiators had to work out vastly different policy language.

The Energy-Water conference report dropped $268 million that was included in the House bill to relaunch the license application review for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site — opting instead for an interim storage proposal that ignored the politically divisive Nevada location; it removed riders that could have made it easier for the White House to revoke the “Waters of the United States” regulation; and it left out language that would have reversed a court decision direction additional water release of hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest to aid spawning salmon downstream.

The Military Construction-VA conferees were able to find a way to address funding needs for veterans’ private medical care access, deciding to go with the House approach and boost funding by about $1.25 billion within the discretionary spending cap. Issues regarding the law (PL 115-182) that overhauled veterans’ medical care programs and moved funding for community care and private medical access from the mandatory side, which is not subject to annual spending caps, to the discretionary side will return during the next several appropriations cycles as the funding needed for those programs increases substantially.

The package will also bring changes to Capitol Hill. The more impactful provisions in the Legislative Branch spending bill will allocate funding for all congressional interns to receive payand require Senate candidates to e-file campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission. Senators currently file physical paperwork with the secretary of the Senate, who then sends it to the FEC.

The Military Construction-VA title, the largest of the three pieces of the package, would provide $98.1 billion overall, a 5.8 percent boost over the current year, including $921 million designated as war-related funds outside of the regular spending caps. Energy-Water programs would receive $44.6 billion, a 3.2 percent increase; while the Legislative Branch measure would be funded at $4.8 billion, a 2.1 percent increase.

Previous disagreements between the House and Senate and Republicans and Democrats as well as competition for floor time are part of the reason the Energy-Water bill hasn’t become law on time since 1999, the Legislative Branch bill hasn’t been enacted on time since 2009 and the Military Construction-VA bill hasn’t become law before the start of the fiscal year since 2016.

Lawmakers hope that this three-bill package won’t be the only fiscal 2019 spending bills to become law on time.

Conferees for the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education spending package (HR 6157) announced Thursday that they have reached agreement and will attach a continuing resolution lasting through Dec. 7 to the package.

The Senate is expected to vote on that conference report next week, with the House voting during the last week of September, after they return from a week-long break.

The fate of the four-bill package (HR 6147) that includes the Agriculture, Financial Services, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD spending bills is less certain.

“I’m not exactly sure how close we are in wrapping these bills together and getting them to the floor of the House and Senate, but the sooner the better,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Thursday during a conference meeting.

Despite the uncertainty, appropriators are motivated.

“I am convinced that we can get all of these bills across the finish line,” Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “We can’t come this far and not achieve that goal.”

At a minimum, the stopgap measure will fund the departments of Homeland Security, State, Commerce, Justice and other agencies. Those three spending bills have not yet been reported out of each chamber’s Appropriations Committee, but have not received floor votes, or been sent to conference.

That means the lame duck post-election session is likely to feature a fight over funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and yet another possible government shutdown, though one impacting far fewer agencies than the partial shutdowns of 2013 and earlier this year which affected most of the federal government.

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