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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dec. 2, 2023

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Senate mulls going first on stopgap, supplemental funds package

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WASHINGTON — Senators are quietly discussing the possibility of moving first on a stopgap spending and supplemental appropriations combo package next month given uncertainty about how the House will proceed, according to sources familiar with the talks.

After Labor Day, lawmakers will have just a few weeks to avert a partial government shutdown when current appropriations lapse on Oct. 1. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster aid fund is rapidly running out of cash and expected to defer longer-term rebuilding projects in order to respond to immediate crises on Maui, in Southern California and elsewhere.

At the same time, it’s not clear what Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be able to pass in his chamber given his fractious caucus is split over fiscal 2024 spending, policy riders and Ukraine funding that’s part of President Joe Biden’s recent $40 billion request. Washington veterans like ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., are predicting another shutdown is more likely than not.

All of these factors have led Senate Democrats, and some Republicans, to explore whether it’s feasible for their chamber to move first.

Appropriators in that chamber have already expressed support for a supplemental package encompassing more aid for Ukraine, disaster relief accounts and border security, and staff have been scrubbing Biden’s proposal for potential tweaks as the Senate drafts its own version.

And while leaders in both chambers have expressed support for a short-term stopgap funding bill, potentially to run past Thanksgiving, McCarthy is under heavy pressure from the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-liners to oppose a supplemental.

Wanted: a vehicle

One problem for the Senate: the lack of appropriate legislative vehicles.

The House would typically originate any appropriations bill, since the constitutional requirement that revenue bills originate in the House is widely but not always interpreted as applying to spending bills as well.

Before the August recess, the House passed one fiscal 2024 appropriations bill, the Military Construction-VA measure. But that bill can’t be used as a vehicle yet, because the papers have been held at the desk rather than transmitted to the Senate to prevent that chamber from using it as a vehicle, according to sources.

One possible workaround, if senators received the parliamentarian’s blessing, would be using the initial debt limit increase bill passed by the House earlier this year. That measure is sitting in the Senate and potentially could serve as a vehicle for the stopgap and an attached supplemental appropriations bill, people familiar with the deliberations said.

Some sources believe the House’s initial debt limit bill might qualify as a spending vehicle since it includes a rescission of IRS funding and would have set caps on discretionary appropriations for a decade.

But it didn’t appear that there were active discussions to use that measure as the vehicle, at least at this preliminary stage. One reason could be that Senate Democrats don’t want to use up a potential vehicle for tax legislation later in the year, such as a measure to expand the child tax credit. The House-passed debt limit bill contained revenue provisions targeting clean energy credits for repeal.

Without a vehicle, the Senate could still originate and pass a continuing resolution, but it would likely keep the papers at the desk rather than transmitting the bill to the House because of the presumption that the process has to start with a House bill.

Similarly, Senate appropriators are weighing a potential package of fiscal 2024 spending bills, selecting from among the dozen their panel reported out before the recess for inclusion in what lawmakers refer to as a “minibus.”

Senators want to demonstrate broad bipartisan support on the floor as they did in committee previously, in contrast with the more partisan process in the House. That chamber was able to pass the Military Construction-VA measure by a thin margin and was forced to shelve the Agriculture bill due to disputes over spending levels and policy riders. None of the House bills drew bipartisan committee backing either.

Any Senate-originated spending bills would need Republican support in order to get the required 60 votes to advance to a final vote. Democrats are hoping that if they can get enough GOP support it will put pressure on the House to act, one source said.

Disasters keep coming

A supplemental would provide emergency spending above the fiscal 2024 discretionary spending caps agreed to in the debt limit suspension law enacted in June, which House GOP conservatives already view as too high.

McCarthy in June disputed the need for a supplemental, saying that while he supports defense, there is waste in the military budget, greater efficiencies are possible, and any increase in military spending should come through the regular appropriations process.

But disaster relief has taken on a greater importance just in the past few days, with wildfires that devastated Maui prompting a presidential visit this week and McCarthy’s home state of California now suffering from the effects of a rare tropical storm.

“This is the deadliest natural disaster that Hawaii has ever seen, and as a result this is the biggest federal response that Hawaii has ever seen,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Tuesday, speaking alongside Biden near the historic banyan tree in the town of Lahaina. “But we will need more support from everyone.”

Schatz is a senior appropriator and chairs the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee which will likely play a role in doling out supplemental funding.

And on Tuesday, GOP members of the California delegation weighed in with Biden seeking a declaration that will free up federal funds for their own storm-ravaged state after Tropical Storm Hilary tore through.

“The intensity and damages of the storm have placed a significant strain on state and local government’s ability to protect public health and safety,” the lawmakers write. “Additional actions are needed requiring federal assistance, coordination, and resources to supplement state and local efforts.”

Signatories include McCarthy, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert, fellow appropriators David Valadao and Mike Garcia and more.

The White House requested $12 billion to replenish FEMA coffers as part of its initial supplemental request, though the agency’s chief, Deanne Criswell, told reporters Monday that figure could ultimately creep up.

Biden himself issued a statement Tuesday about “the devastating impacts of extreme weather worsened by climate change.” He pointed to Tropical Storm Harold threatening South Texas and Tropical Storm Franklin bearing down on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both are territories still rebuilding after Hurricane Maria and other storms, which could now see projects delayed if FEMA doesn’t get more money soon.

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