(The Hill) – Congressional negotiators are in danger of missing the Feb. 18 deadline for passing an omnibus package of the annual appropriations for fiscal year 2022.
A shutdown is unlikely, but members of the Senate Appropriations Committee from both parties warn that if negotiators blow through the mid-February deadline, it increases the likelihood that Biden will have to settle for a yearlong stopgap funding measure to keep the government open.
That would prevent him from putting his own stamp on department and agency budgets while Democrats control Congress.
As a result, Senate Democrats right now are prioritizing passage of the omnibus spending bill ahead of the Build Back Better Act, which the House passed in November but then stalled last month because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
“I think the budget has to be next, to be honest. I want BBB to be done but we have a narrow window to pass a budget and I want to make sure we get a budget deal,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, referring to the omnibus package.
“You have a limited window on a budget and you never know what’s going to happen in 2022. If we don’t get a budget now, there’s a chance President Biden will never do a budget with the Democratic Congress,” Murphy warned.
“If we miss this deadline, it becomes really hard to avoid a year-long CR,” he said.
The growing concern that Biden might not have a chance to put his stamp on the nation’s spending priorities while Democrats control both branches of Congress comes amid a wave of Democratic retirements in the House and expectations that Republicans will flip the lower chamber in the midterm elections.
But the prospects of getting the omnibus passed in the next three weeks is slipping.
One Democratic aide said it be “extraordinary” if the omnibus package gets wrapped up by Feb. 18 while Republican aide said “it’s gonna be hard to get it done” by that date.
Some Democratic and Republicans senators were told earlier this month that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the panel, had a deal in principle.
But a call between Leahy and Shelby over the January recess didn’t go well, according to a source briefed on the discussion.
A disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over how much to increase funding for domestic, non-defense social programs compared to the military is a major sticking point, according to sources familiar with the discussion.
There are also disagreements over policy riders, in particular the so-called Hyde Amendment, which was first passed in 1976 and bans federal funding for abortion.
Leahy on Thursday declined to discuss any of the details of the standoff but said he continues to negotiate with Shelby.
“Dick Shelby and I keep talking and we’ll probably talk again today,” he told The Hill.
A person familiar with the talks said the Leahy and Shelby are exchanging offers.
Biden’s budget for fiscal year 2022 requested a 16 percent funding increase for domestic non-defense programs and a 1.7 percent increase for the military.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has stuck closely to the president’s numbers while Leahy and Shelby have agreed to reduce the increase in domestic programs to 13 percent and boost the military funding increase to 5 percent.
Shelby has to balance his desire for a deal with pressure from his leadership to keep the funding increase for social programs in step with defense.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), himself a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, has insisted on parity between defense and non-defense programs.
It was one of “two simple things” he said would be critical to get the appropriations process back on track.
“Number one, Democrats will need to honor the long-standing bipartisan truce that provides parity for defense and non-defense spending grow spending growth,” he said. “Number two, we must have agreement that we’re going to keep longstanding policy riders in and new poison pill riders out.”
James W. Dyer, a senior advisor at Baker Donelson and a former Republican staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, said Republicans are reluctant to agree to a significant funding increase for domestic programs when there’s still a chance that Democrats can pass big chunks of Biden’s human infrastructure agenda with 51 votes under special budget reconciliation rules.
“I think wrestling with this ‘What is the top-line for non-defense discretionary [spending]’ is a core issue,” he said. “There’s lingering fear on the side of Republicans that Democrats are going to take a chunk of this Build Back Better bill and move it through the system somehow and I think that spooks them a little bit.”
Murphy said failure to pass a new package of spending bills would cause big problems for the Department of Homeland Security, which he oversees as a subcommittee chairman.
“The Department of Homeland Security budget that I chair, that’s a train wreck because we have such an imbalance of accounts at DHS right now. We have very little money coming in because of no travel and we have huge obligations because of the increased number of people at the border,” he said.
Department of Homeland Security revenues have dropped because of a falloff in fees associated with the pandemic-related decline in international travel and the increase in costs caused by the backlog of migrants at the Southwestern border.
Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, said having to fall back onto a year-long continuing resolution would be “disastrous.”
“It’s disastrous for everybody to fail to pass [an omnibus appropriations package,]” he said. “That’s the most fundamental responsibility of the Congress.
“Specifically, there’s a huge amount of money in that package for the military and for the Congress to fail, the military would lose something like $27 billion,” he added. “To take that money away in the middle of this Ukraine crisis is to shoot American foreign policy in the foot.”
Lilly explained the 5 percent funding increase proposed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and approved in the annual National Defense Authorization Act amounts to a $27 billion increase for the military.
Spokespeople for the two senior negotiators declined to comment in detail on the talks.
“The negotiations are ongoing and it remains the chairman’s goal to complete those negotiations by Feb. 18,” said Jay Tilton, a spokesman for Leahy.
Blair Taylor, a spokeswoman for Shelby said, “We are working diligently to create a product that is palatable to everyone — bills that can advance through Congress and be signed into law by the president.”