The Senate hopes to quickly follow with its own vote — probably on Wednesday. | AP Photo
Call it the Return of the Jedi or the prodigal son. But the giant omnibus spending bill heading to the House and Senate floors looms largest for the Appropriations Committees after years of being kicked to the curb by party leaders and ignored by a feckless White House.
The final product, totaling $1.1 trillion and filling hundreds of pages, surely contains its flaws and short-sightedness. But it is by far the biggest bipartisan deal written by a committee of Congress — and not in leadership offices — that Washington has seen in some time.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was almost bubbly coming out of a meeting Monday night of Senate Republicans on the Appropriations panel. Staff looked exhausted, having worked in some cases six weeks straight but for Christmas Day. Even the ever-cautious Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican, broke into a smile.
“If the House comes with a big vote, we’ll get a big vote, too,” Shelby said, after urging his GOP colleagues to stand with him and Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) for the bill. “It’s not everything anybody wanted, but we’ve been working hard at it and it will lead us, hopefully, to regular order.”
Having seen his own fortunes fall, President Barack Obama must share in this hope.
The president has been famously lackadaisical, even snobbish, toward the gritty world of appropriations. But the committees are giving the him a bill best described as a “fighting chance.”
The worst of the domestic spending cuts last spring are rolled back. Upwards of $1 billion is added for Head Start and pre-kindergarten education — a priority pushed by the president. Obama won’t get close to what he wanted for his health care program and Wall Street reforms. But both will endure.
Time is still a challenge. With the risk of a shutdown Wednesday, the House took up and quickly approved Tuesday a three-day extension of the current stopgap resolution that has kept agencies operating since October.
The Senate hopes to quickly follow with its own vote — probably on Wednesday. This will move the deadline back to Saturday, Jan. 18. The gamble is whether that is sufficient time. The House will vote first on the omnibus bill — likely on Wednesday. Senate Democrats may try to take it up the same day and are hoping that Shelby will be able to deliver the Republican votes needed to avoid prolonged battles over cloture Thursday and Friday.
This schedule leaves little margin for error but there’s also a genuine hunger to build on the December budget agreement and demonstrate some ability to govern.
Already, a long-anticipated farm bill has gone off the tracks — in part because of a leadership fight with the House Agriculture Committee. If the omnibus were to fail as well, it would be a huge black eye for both parties and another blow to the committee system.
As drafted, the package fully respects the contours set in December but adds hundreds of pages in detail, spelling out where the dollars will actually go. Literally every corner of the government is impacted, and the bill is a snapshot of new and old priorities competing for limited funds.
Three major crises stand out: forest fires in the West, the Syrian civil war, and the rise in unaccompanied minors coming over the southern border in states like Texas and Arizona. Each requires extra dollars to address. Each then has a ripple effect under the December caps since something else has to give.
Indeed, the most striking exercise is to compare the numbers now with what Congress approved almost exactly six years ago in a similar omnibus bill in December 2007 under then-Republican President George W. Bush.
Time and again, the new domestic appropriations rolled out Monday night are less in real dollars adjusted for inflation. In December 2007, for example, the National Institutes of Health received $29.2 billion or about $32.8 billion in current dollars. The omnibus now provides $29.9 billion, nearly $3 billion less.
At one level this is a victory for conservatives. At another it shows that investments in science and infrastructure are being held back because of the continued stalemate over reforms in benefit programs and taxes.
The impact is felt not just at home but around the world. Among the biggest casualties for the administration is the bill’s failure to include a relatively modest request by Treasury to make good on long-overdue U.S. pledges to the International Monetary Fund — dating back to 2010.
The continued impasse is a growing source of friction with American trading partners since it has blocked promised reforms that would allow emerging economies like Brazil and India to play a greater role in the IMF.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had personally appealed to Republicans for help. Major business lobbies mounted a belated effort on his behalf. But resistance from the House Financial Services Committee made it harder for negotiators to agree, and the IMF money — just $315 million — ended up on the cutting room floor.
“I am disappointed that necessary steps could not be taken to implement this important governance reform.” said Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director in a statement Monday night. “ The world is evolving, and we are fully committed to helping our membership finalize what it agreed in 2010 is needed to ensure that the Fund keeps pace with global change and helps meet emerging challenges.”
Elsewhere in the bill, Republicans also kept a tight rein on new funding for Wall Street regulators important to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms enacted in Obama’s first term. The administration avoided the most intrusive policy riders, but the price of getting Shelby’s support was less money than the president has wanted for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I’ve always thought the regulators needed adequate money, they don’t need too much money. They need adequate money,” Shelby, the former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said in a hallway interview last week.
In the CFTC’s case, that proved to be $215 million in 2014 — about $20 million more than the current fund but $100 million less than Obama’s request. The much larger SEC fares better with a $1.35 billion budget but still $324 million less than requested.
“It is shameful that Wall Street’s allies in Congress have again failed to fund the very agencies that are charged with protecting Main Street,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of the nonprofit, Better Markets Inc., which has argued for more vigorous implantation of the Dodd-Frank law. “This sets the agencies up to fail by asking them to do much more than their budgets will allow.”
Republicans took the same approach to Obama’s health care program, denying the president any new appropriations beyond the estimated $3.7 billion now allowed in the management account at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
That’s about $1.5 billion less than the president’s 2014 request, but the White House retains the flexibility to find the financing it needs to implement the health exchanges.
Fees generated by the sale of policies under the Affordable Care Act are a potential source of relief here. To make her task harder, Republicans forced some cuts from mandatory appropriations allowed under ACA. But Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell is apparently satisfied that she can make the arrangement work for the president.
“The bipartisan appropriations bill represents a positive step forward for the Nation and our economy,” Burwell said in a statement. “This legislation adheres to the funding levels in the budget agreement enacted in December, unwinds some of the damaging cuts caused by sequestration, ensures the continuation of critical services the American people depend on, and brings us closer to returning the budget process to regular order.”
Sounds a little like the Appropriations Committees. Sounds a little like a fighting chance.