by Dom Ruscio, Partner
Some DC denizens breathed a sigh of relief last December when Congress hatched a budget deal that was supposed to put an end to the spending fights—at least for a while.
The Ryan-Murray deal that eased the effects of sequestration also set budget totals enabling both chambers’ appropriations committees to write spending bills to the same top-line number — $1.012 trillion for 2014 and $1.014 trillion for 2015.
That agreement, coming on the heels of a 16-day shutdown of the government last October, set up the chance for the two chambers to work through the regular appropriations process of formulating legislation in committee, passing it and then having House-Senate conference committees reconcile the difference.
Whew! Back to regular order and maybe—just maybe—a chance to build trust between the two sides to broker a compromise on bigger deals.
The deal brought the two sides together all right, spawning a brand-new concept for the nation’s capital—bipartisan gridlock.
Ordinarily, battles over spending bills occur between the GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. This year the derailment site over appropriations is the Senate.
The House is about half-way through the 12 spending bills, while the Senate is stuck in neutral. The original plan called for the Senate appropriations committee to begin churning out spending bills in June. Committee chair Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) would then cobble together three noncontroversial bills that the Senate would debate and pass, presumably in short order. Assuming that process went smoothly, another mini-bus of spending bills would be voted on and passed, leaving what Mikulski dubbed the “ugly stepsisters,” like the Labor-HHS-Education bill, to be dealt with later in the year.
But that rosy scenario faded when Senate leader Harry Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell butted heads over the rules governing floor amendments. Then Senate Democrats facing tough reelection fights in swing states like Louisiana, Alaska, Minnesota and Colorado, asked Reid to protect them from taking votes on controversial issues, like spending $3.8 billion to shelter and care for unaccompanied minors from Central America.
What does it all mean? With the Senate at a standstill, it seems less likely that any spending bills will be enacted before the November elections, putting federal programs on yet another continuing resolution at least until early December.