Border wall, other disputes sidetrack Senate spending work

David Lerman, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's appropriations process fell into disarray Tuesday after a scheduled markup was abruptly postponed in a dispute over policy riders, and a fight over the border wall threatened to hold up defense spending.

Democrats were also resisting the GOP majority's proposed subcommittee allocations that are needed to draft the 12 fiscal 2020 spending bills. And some lawmakers said there was still no agreement between the House and Senate on the length of a stopgap funding measure that will be needed to avoid a government shutdown come next month, when the new fiscal year begins.

Taken together, the day's developments suggest a rocky road to get even parts of the government funded on time, as Congress succeeded at doing last year until the border wall funding impasse led to the longest partial shutdown in history.

Plans to advance a draft Labor-HHS-Education spending bill through subcommittee Tuesday collapsed in a partisan spat over abortion policy. Democrats made clear they were preparing to offer an amendment at the full Appropriations Committee markup Thursday that would block the Trump administration from enforcing a rule preventing federal grant money from going to organizations that offer abortions or refer patients for abortions.

Appropriators had been hoping to avoid disputes on such policy riders this year because of a side agreement reached as part of the new two-year budget deal enacted last month that prohibits "poison pill" policy riders unless they have backing from top congressional leaders of both parties and President Donald Trump. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on what constitutes a "poison pill" that would be barred by the budget deal, aides said.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, said the Title X family planning program has "historically had strong support from Republicans and Democrats" and deserves a vote in the full committee Thursday through an amendment she plans to offer. "If Senate Republicans are more willing to listen to President Trump than women and patients in their own states, they should own up to it and be willing to let their votes show it," she said in a statement.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of backtracking on the bipartisan budget deal. Democrats have "tried to wiggle out of an agreement we all signed off on," the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., remained stoic Tuesday as he pushed his fiscal 2020 defense spending bill through his defense subcommittee on a voice vote.

"This year, we are off to a late start," Shelby said, with none of the 12 bills through committee and only three weeks left before the new fiscal year begins. "But with the certainty of the budget agreement; stable, two-year funding, and the decision by all parties to eliminate poison pills, I see no reason why we cannot repeat the success of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations process."

That sense of optimism, however, was not shared by the subcommittee's top Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. Durbin said Democrats were prepared to use Thursday's full committee markup to fight the Trump administration's effort to divert billions of dollars from Pentagon accounts to help finance a wall on the southern border. The Pentagon last week announced plans to begin moving $3.6 billion from military construction projects, while another $2.5 billion could come from counterdrug operations funding.


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