Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he "will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he "will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow." J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Pandemic Response and Racial Justice Efforts Delay 2021 Spending Process, Increasing Risk of a Shutdown

Bipartisan attempts to avoid a lapse in appropriations this fall hit a snag.

The schedule for passing spending bills to avoid a shutdown this fall, already condensed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, was disrupted this week as lawmakers debated which topics the funding measures should address. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee pushed back its timeline for considering fiscal 2021 spending bills this week after Democrats fought to include amendments on emergency funding for pandemic response, as well as efforts to reform policing. The police reform effort follows legislative attempts in both the House and Senate to address systemic racism in policing after nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, last month in Minneapolis. 

The Senate panel had planned to begin its markups next week, but Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the committee, blamed Democrats for altering that schedule. 

“Funding the government is a serious responsibility, and I will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow,” Shelby said. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member on the panel, rejected the assertion that Democrats were playing partisan games, saying addressing issues of the day “is the job the committee is here to do.”

“Senate Democrats are committed to producing bipartisan bills,” Leahy said. “There is bipartisan agreement that we need to address the COVID pandemic. And if we want to truly address the issues of racial injustice that George Floyd’s tragic death has brought to the surface, we need more than symbolism, we need to appropriate money for programs that advance these issues.”

A Senate Republican aide said Democrats were backtracking on a previous agreement in the committee to avoid "poison pill riders" and amendments that would not receive broad, bipartisan support on the Senate floor. The aide added that while there may be some bipartisan support for Democrats' amendments, they would not clear the threshold of "broad bipartisan support." Additional spending related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the aide said, should be passed through a separate emergency supplemental package as Congress has done previously. "Social justice reforms," the aide added, should remain in legislation focused on those efforts and not distract from annual funding needs of federal agencies. 

The committee has bipartisan bills drafted and ready for committee votes once Democrats set aside their demands on amendments, the aide said. Current funding for federal agencies is set to expire Oct. 1. 

Congress is scheduled to recess for July 4th and most of August, further condensing the timeframe to pass spending bills before agencies would have to close. On the House side, the Appropriations Committee plans to mark up its spending bills early next month. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told his colleagues last month he was “hopeful” the chamber would pass all 12 of the annual appropriations bills in July to avoid alteration to the August recess plans. He warned his colleagues to expect “longer days” and late votes, exacerbated by safety protocols required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The House measures have typically passed largely along party lines, however, and differences with the Senate versions would still have to be ironed out in conference committee negotiations. Given that timing and the elections taking place in November, a stopgap spending measure to avoid a fall shutdown appears likely. President Trump, often mercurial in times of spending negotiations, has not said if he would go along with such a plan.