In voting against a bill last week that would have avoided a government shutdown, many congressional Democrats said the need to provide federal agencies full-year appropriations motivated their decision.
Stopgap bill after stopgap bill left key priorities unfunded, lawmakers said, and only a budget deal that raised spending caps and a subsequent funding measure could give agencies the resources they needed to properly hire and deliver services. Five Republican senators joined most Democrats in opposing the bill, citing primarily the damage continuing resolutions wreak on the military.
“You cannot run a government on a month-to-month basis,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hours before appropriations lapsed on Friday. “We cannot continue to abdicate our responsibility.”
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He cited staffing issues at the Veterans Affairs Department and Social Security Administration among the issues that could not “be kicked down the road.” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., similarly said short-term spending bills risked agencies’ abilities to carry out their missions.
“What we want is a budget, pure and simple,” Cardin said. “We cannot live on continuing resolutions.”
On Monday, lawmakers voted to reopen the government by agreeing to a three-week CR (Sanders voted against the bill, while Cardin voted for it), the fourth such bill of fiscal 2018. And despite the concerns from those in both parties, it appears agencies are headed for a fifth. That would mark the most CRs in one year since fiscal 2011, when Congress passed seven.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Republican Conference chairman, told reporters Monday lawmakers would likely need another CR when the current funding measure expires Feb. 8 to wrap up outstanding issues. Congressional negotiators have yet to agree to a budget deal to raise the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Once that agreement is struck—still a daunting proposition, as Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree on whether defense and non-defense spending caps will be increased equally—appropriators must then iron out an omnibus bill setting line-by-line spending for every agency in government.
“It seems certain that we will have to do another CR,” said Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. “Hopefully we will also get a budget deal so appropriators can get to work.”
Senate Democrats only agreed to reopen government on Monday after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would allow a vote on a measure that would grant permanent legal status to certain immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were children. McConnell provided the caveat, however, that he would allow the vote after the current CR expires “so long as the government remains open.” That also could signal lawmakers will have to agree to another stopgap measure in order to vote on an immigration agreement.
The majority leader said he would also bring “disaster relief, defense funding, health care and other important matters” to a vote at such time.
The spending caps currently in place could have triggered a sequestration from agency accounts if a CR remained in place, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In a stopgap bill passed just before Christmas, however, lawmakers included a provision that the Office of Management and Budget should not assess whether agencies are in compliance with the caps until 15 days after the expiration of the continuing resolution. Each CR is really just an amendment of the previous iteration to extend its length, meaning Congress has essentially delayed a sequestration for as long as a stopgap bill remains in place.
David Reich, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said it “makes sense” lawmakers have taken that approach.
“Congress is pretty clear, ‘This isn’t our last word, we will eventually amend the BCA, amend the caps, and then write appropriations laws that comply with new caps,’ ” Reich said.