Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Jennifer Zeitzer
Thursday, June 14, 2018

House Passes Rescissions Bill and Minibus Appropriations Package; Senate Committee Approves Funding for National Science Foundation and Veterans Research; McConnell Cancels August Recess; Farm Bill Released

Following a week spent in their districts for the Memorial Day recess, House members returned to Capitol Hill and turned their attention to fiscal matters. While away, the White House sent a revised recessions request to Congress, backing away from some of the spending cuts included in the early May proposal. Lack of support for the original package forced House leaders to postpone a vote anticipated before the holiday.

The revised request would preserve unspent funding from prior years for Environmental Protection Agency programs, Ebola response, and Hurricane Sandy recovery, all originally slated to be cut. These changes were intended to win support from House Republicans who expressed opposition to the first request. On June 7, the House passed the revised rescissions package (HR 3, the Spending Cuts to Expired and Unnecessary Programs Act) by a mostly party-line vote of 210-206. All Democrats voted against the bill as did several northeastern moderate Republicans from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Senate leaders have not indicated if they will schedule a vote on HR 3. With all Senate Democrats expected to oppose the measure, leadership will need every Republican in order to use a special procedure to pass it with 51 votes. The Senate must act by June 22. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said recently he has been meeting with Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to discuss their concerns. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) indicated he would review the White House’s revised request but did not commit to voting for it.

In related news, House and Senate appropriators made additional progress on the fiscal year (FY) 2019 spending bills. The full House considered the first minibus package (HR 5895), combining the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (VA) bills. HR 5895 contained $6.6 billion (a $340 million increase) for the Department of Energy Office of Science and $732 million (an additional $10 million) for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research Program. The House easily passed the minibus on a bipartisan 235-179 vote, overcoming objections from Democratic leaders who urged their caucus not to support the bill because it underfunded critical programs and included partisan policy riders.

The relatively smooth passage of the first minibus could accelerate House consideration of the remaining spending bills, especially since 11 of 12 have been approved by the Appropriations Committee. A subcommittee vote on the only unfinished measure – the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill that funds the National Institutes of Health – is scheduled for June 15. According to a press release, the LHHS legislation provides $38.3 billion for NIH, a $1.25 billion increase. “These funds will greatly benefit numerous medical research programs,” said subcommittee chairman Tom Cole (R-OK).

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved their version of the Military Construction/VA bill (S 3024), recommending $779 million for the Medical and Prosthetic Research Program (a $57 million increase). Military Construction/VA Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman (R-AK) specifically mentioned “robust funding for innovative medical research” in a press release summarizing the bill’s highlights.

Funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a generous boost following the Senate Appropriations Committee’s passage of the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) bill on June 14. The legislation provides $8.1 billion for NSF, an increase of $301 million. “This bipartisan bill achieves an appropriate balance between fiscal responsibility and investing in our future by supporting law enforcement, national security interests, economic development, and scientific innovation,” said Senate CJS Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS).

Senate appropriators plan to now finish work on FY 2019 spending bills in anticipation of final votes on the floor over the next few months. Their optimism follows remarks from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who included appropriation measures approval on a list of the Senate’s summer legislative priorities.

McConnell indicated the Senate will follow a similar process as the House and concentrate on passing minibus packages. “From a parliamentary point of view, they [the House] need to bunch them before they come over to us, but the goal is to move as many of the bills as we can in minibuses of two or three bills each.” McConnell added, “We’re in coordination with the House.”

The Majority Leader also expressed confidence that the Senate will pass minibus packages, noting “There seems to be pretty broad agreement across party lines that we want to get these bills done and not have the ending that we had last year.” This is a very positive development given the Senate did not vote on any of the FY 2018 appropriations bills.

The Senate should have plenty of time to vote on spending bills given McConnell’s recent announcement that nearly all the Senate’s summer recess is canceled. Under the revised schedule, the Senate will be off August 6-10 and remain in session the rest of the month. They had been scheduled to be on break the entire month.

Passage of the farm bill is also on the Senate’s summer agenda. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee approved their version of the Agriculture Improvement Act on June 13 by a 21-0 vote. As expected, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) produced a bipartisan bill that differs greatly from the House proposal that was defeated last month. Roberts and Stabenow want to ensure their legislation can eventually get the 60 votes needed to pass the bill in the full Senate.

A Senate farm bill summary indicates that the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would be renewed through 2023. AFRI is the Department of Agriculture’s competitive grant program. Additional language extends the currently authorized funding level of $700 million and specifies soil health as a new priority area for AFRI grants.