Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk

Senate Remains Stalled on Spending Bills

A short-term measure will probably be necessary to keep government open after Sept. 30.

The Senate is taking up only the second spending bill to reach the floor this year—the $3.57 billion supplemental for the border crisis, wildfires, and the defense of Israel—and prospects for passage are as slim as they were for the first one that died in June.

And so without any of the 12 annual appropriations bills completed two months before fiscal year 2015 begins—and with a five-week recess just ahead—the talk has turned toward stopgap measures.

Democratic senators, long bearish on the prospects of jump-starting the dormant appropriations process after the two-year bipartisan budget deal passed last year, are now pointing to the likelihood that a short-term continuing resolution will be necessary to keep the government running past Oct. 1.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, said he expects the Senate to take up a short-term spending bill before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30 and to extend funding until December, after the midterms.

It's too early to sketch the contours of the bill, senators say, but some suggest the work done so far by the Appropriations Committee could serve as a road map.

"I would note that an enormous amount of bipartisan work has gone into forging bipartisan appropriations bills over here, and there is a bipartisan sense that that work should not be wasted," said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Harkin suggested the same, saying he hopes the committee's work will be folded into an omnibus—a large-scale bill that would reflect the work already done on the spending measures this Congress.

At stake is a more than trillion-dollar budget for discretionary spending. Last year's budget deal capped spending for fiscal year 2014 at $1.012 trillion, with that figure rising to $1.014 trillion in 2015. While the House has passed eight appropriations bills, the Senate has yet to move one off the floor.

The Senate has struggled with spending bills this year, not because of roadblocks at the committee level but because of partisan disagreements over amendments once the bills reached the floor. That's what torpedoed a three-part spending bill that included funds for Agriculture, Transportation, and Commerce last month.

The fight over amendments was also on display this week, when Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland sought to bring the funding bill for military construction and Veterans Affairs to the floor.

"I am not trying to stiff-arm the opportunity to offer amendments," Mikulski said this week. "But we have 72 hours left before we take this really long break—really long, long, long, very long—did I say long?—break. I do not think when you need health care for veterans, when you need to modernize technology [at the VA], when you need to crack the backlog—while we are kind of basking in the sun somewhere, I do not want [veterans] in line."

Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby of Alabama blocked the request. Shelby wanted alternating amendments between Democrats and Republicans, and Mikulski rejected the idea.

"My response should not be interpreted as a pugnacious rejection," she said. "I appreciate the civil and courteous way the senator from Alabama has responded, but in a nutshell, what the senator from Alabama is requesting is that we not pick up the supplemental, that we bring up the VA-MilCon instead. I would like to bring up both bills."

Not all Democrats oppose letting Republicans have amendments. Some say they support allowing amendments as long as they are relevant to the legislation on the floor.

Asked whether it would be better to pass no spending bills than to allow Republican amendments, Harkin said: "No. I always felt that we ought to allow Republicans to offer amendments—germane to the bill. If they can agree to that, then fine."