4-Bill “Minibus” Including DOT Appropriations Slips as CR Drama Unfolds

September 21, 2018

Hopes that another four-bill package of appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2019, including the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill, could be signed into law before the elections are fading, despite more meetings of Appropriations Committee staffers to be held next week.

Senior members of the Appropriations Committees held a public meeting of the conference committee on the four-bill (Agriculture, Financial Services and General Government, Interior and Environment, and Transportation-HUD) on September 13, at which the leaders congratulated themselves for being closer on several of the bills than in years past, but Democrats bemoaned the remaining differences, almost all of which were policy-related, not funding-related.

On the Transportation-HUD bill, all of the dollar amounts appear to have been resolved, but policy-related differences that remain include the “F4A” provision preempting California law on meal and rest breaks for intrastate truckers (House bill), the truck weight limit increase for battery-powered trucks (House bill), and the Chinese rail car funding prohibition (versions in both bills).

On other bills in the package, the situation is worse – the Interior/Environment bill is home to many environmental policy provisions pushed by House Republicans, and until the elections are over, the lack of any additional funding in either version of the Financial Services/General Government bill will be a huge, and public, sticking point for Democrats.

But even if all of those many differences can be bridged in the next few days, party leaders have to ask – are the votes there to pass the bill at this time?

Those same leaders had hoped to get around general House GOP dissatisfaction with the sharply increased domestic spending levels in 2019 and President Trump’s demands for $5 billion in US-Mexico border wall funding by packing the Defense bill (all Republicans these days love the Pentagon, no matter how much money it wants), the Labor-HHS-Education bill with many of those social spending increases, and a stopgap continuing resolution through December 7 into one package – the thought being that even House far-right Freedom Caucus members wouldn’t vote against the Pentagon budget, nor would Trump.

But yesterday, the President has since started tweeting to complain about the package, which the Senate passed earlier this week: “I want to know, where is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this ridiculous Spending Bill, and where will it come from after the Midterms? Dems are obstructing Law Enforcement and Border Security. REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!”

House leaders think they still have the votes to pass the DoD-LHHS-CR package next week and avoid an embarrassing and pointless government shutdown over the weekend. But they also have to look forward. And they don’t think that Trump will veto the bill and force a shutdown where the blame would like squarely on him.

But those leaders also have to look ahead. If the DoD-LaborH-CR package is signed into law, then almost all of the defense money that gets the right wing to vote for appropriations bills will be gone. Under the current budget caps, the other seven unfinished spending bills would only have $7.9 billion in defense money combined, versus $305 billion in non-defense money:

Say that negotiators agree on the four-bill minibus package (in a way that Senate Democrats under Patrick Leahy (D-VT) agree to, since Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has been working in lockstep with Leahy this year). And say that bill, containing $154 billion or so in funding, and over 95 percent of that non-defense, comes to the floor in last September or early October, and not only are a lot of Republicans seeking to get back their l0w-spending bona fides before the election, but the President then tweets out something random about vetoing the bill unless they add the border wall money?

Are Republican leaders willing to bet that won’t happen, or are they ready to accept the public embarrassment if it does happen and then they have to pull the minibus package back until after the elections?

If the House can clear the CR next week and President Trump signs it, the immediate pressure will be off until after the elections. Thereafter, the path with the greatest reward-risk ratio for Republican leaders may be to postpone the remaining seven spending bills, including the four-bill package that is oh-so-close to being done, until after the elections.


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