Battles over spending, farm bill, Ukraine and yet more loom over a divided Congress
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington, D.C. At left is U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Photo by Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House and Senate are both back in D.C. on Tuesday following a long summer recess, facing an overwhelming agenda of unfinished work — funding the federal government and reauthorizing major programs set to expire at the end of the month.
Congressional leaders and President Joe Biden have only a few weeks to broker a short-term spending deal that can gain votes from deeply divided members of Congress or spark a partial government shutdown before a Sept. 30 deadline. Far-right House Republicans already are insistent on big cuts in spending levels at odds with bipartisan Senate legislation.
On top of that, lawmakers must negotiate another vital short-term extension, that of the massive five-year farm bill that authorizes agricultural subsidies as well as nutritional programs that feed millions of low-income Americans.
Aid to Ukraine, a boost for natural disaster assistance, the annual defense policy bill, rail safety improvements and money for added border security will also be part of the complicated mix. At the same time, Congress will be roiled by the push by some GOP members for Biden’s impeachment and a blockage of quick Senate votes for top military positions led by Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville.
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The Senate returned last week, ahead of the House, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a “good conversation” about passing a spending bill by Sept. 30 that would last for just weeks or months, instead of a full year, buying more time for negotiations.
But Schumer raised concerns about whether the California Republican would stick to that plan, given the conflicts within the GOP conference.
“He’s going to have a rough time implementing it, but I hope he sticks to his guns,” Schumer said.
The New York Democrat on Monday urged the House to follow the Senate’s example and advance bipartisan bills.
“The Senate has shown that bipartisan compromise is entirely possible even in these divided times,” Schumer said.
If a partial government shutdown were to begin, it would affect a wider swath of the federal government than the longest funding lapse in history, which lasted 35 days under the Trump administration.
A short-term stopgap spending measure also likely needs to include temporary extensions of the farm bill and the Federal Aviation Administration, which sets safety guidelines for air travel, manages air traffic control and provides funding to airports.
The largest disputes at the moment and highest potential for a shutdown rest with House Republicans, who have drafted both spending and authorizing bills to appease a small coalition of far-right conservative members.
Their differences with the Senate will pose a major test of leadership for McCarthy, who may need to advance bipartisan Senate bills that many of his conservatives loathe.
If Congress and the White House can reach a short-term deal to fund the government and continue the authorizations for the farm bill and FAA, lawmakers will spend the last few months of the year working toward passing full-year bills.
Here’s a look at the top items confronting Congress:
The fiscal year for the federal government begins anew on Oct. 1. Congress must pass a short-term government funding bill before that date or begin a partial government shutdown; it is partial because essential functions will be spared, though federal employees who manage those operations will go without pay, as will the military.
The House Appropriations Committee has approved all dozen of its annual spending bills on party-line votes while the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved its version of the bills with strong bipartisan backing.
Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and ranking member Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, have both been lauded by party leadership for “spectacular” and “phenomenal” work.
Congress, however, has not begun moving forward with the conference process for full-year funding bills, making a stopgap spending bill crucial. That legislation, sometimes called a continuing resolution or CR, will likely last until December, though leadership has yet to set the date.
If there’s no new spending law in place by Oct. 1, then the federal government would begin a partial shutdown that would hit many more departments and agencies than during the Trump administration shutdown.
That funding lapse began after five of the dozen annual bills became law. That means big agencies that have dealings with many Americans, including Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, weren’t affected. Members of Congress also didn’t suffer, having passed the funding bill for themselves and their staff.
The White House’s budget office is attempting to head off a shutdown by releasing 50 fact sheets this week detailing how a funding lapse would impact each state.
Ukraine, natural disasters and more
An additional $40 billion in funding for Ukraine, natural disaster recovery, wildland firefighter pay and border security must pass Congress, according to a request from the Biden administration.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is pressing for additional aid to Ukraine, though he acknowledged last week that many in the GOP don’t feel the same way.
“I know there’s a difference of opinion in my party on this and I think the president has been too slow to keep the commitments that he’s made publicly. But at least he’s supporting the effort,” McConnell said. “I think he could have done it more skillfully, but he is supporting the effort and I intend to continue to support it. And I hope the majority of my colleagues feel the same way.”
Many Republicans have called for separating the $12 billion request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund from the rest of the supplemental funding proposal so that money can move through Congress quickly. The fund is running low on money.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates rejected calls to separate out Ukraine aid from other spending priorities.
“Like Senate Republicans, Speaker McCarthy should keep his word about government funding,” Bates said in a written statement. “And he should do so in a way that acts on these pressing issues — including fentanyl, national security, and disaster response — rather than break his promise and cave to the most extreme members of his conference agitating for a baseless impeachment stunt and shutdown.”
Historically a bipartisan endeavor, negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act could hit partisan roadblocks in the coming months if McCarthy and far-right conservatives fail to compromise.
The annual bill authorizes how much the government can spend on Department of Defense activities, including construction, procurement and military personnel, as well as nuclear weapons programs under the Department of Energy. Congress must pass a separate appropriations bill to unlock the money.
This year House Republicans have bucked the routine bipartisan process by approving several contentious amendments in their version of the bill, including blocking funding for a Pentagon policy that reimburses service members’ travel for an abortion.
The House version, mainly passed along party lines, would also prohibit military health care professionals from performing transition-related health care for transgender service members and eliminate Pentagon positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The social policies are a nonstarter for Senate Democrats who hold the majority in the upper chamber. The Senate version overwhelmingly passed 86-11.
The House version would authorize $874.2 billion, while the Senate bill would authorize $876.8 billion — both meeting Biden’s defense funding requests for 2024.
Many programs authorized by the expansive legislation expire at the end of the fiscal year.
The House and Senate will begin reconciling their versions in mid- to-late September, with 25 members from each chamber forming a conference committee to reach an agreement.
The farm bill is a package of legislation that is passed every five years, and the 2018 version of the bill is set to expire at the end of the month.
It’s a multi-billion-dollar item that covers agriculture and food policy such as farm safety net programs, crop insurance, conservation and sustainability incentives, though the bulk of the funding goes toward food and nutrition programs for low-income people.
Nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps and known as SNAP, for the 2018 farm bill comprised about 75% of spending; they are projected to account for about 84% of the 2023 farm bill.
The exact price tag of the upcoming farm bill is unknown, but because of higher food costs and subsidies, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that without any changes from 2018, this year’s version could — for the first time ever — push $1.5 trillion for fiscal years 2024 to 2033.
Lawmakers began hearings and listening sessions for the farm bill late last year.
Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said in a statement that negotiations are still ongoing and stressed the importance for Congress to reauthorize the bill by the end of the year.
“Our country’s food security depends on it,” she said.
Lawmakers in states with a heavy agriculture industry like Iowa are feeling the time crunch. Upon returning from August recess, Republican Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley said during their floor speeches that Congress needs to pass the farm bill by the end of the month to help farmers and ranchers.
If lawmakers don’t pass a 2023 farm bill, then they will likely enact program extensions at a funding baseline until final passage. In 2018, a stalled farm bill was signed into law in December.
Funding for SNAP is an inflection point for Republicans, who are looking to scale back or add more requirements for recipients. About 42 million Americans receive monthly SNAP benefits, or about 12.5% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s a separate food nutrition program for Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Earlier this year, McCarthy made additional work requirements for SNAP part of the debt ceiling deal. That provision increases the work rules age ceiling from 49 to 55 for adults without dependents.
A separate agriculture appropriations process, which releases funds for farmers and SNAP, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, fell apart before lawmakers left for August recess. The sticking point for far-right conservatives came down to banning the availability of mifepristone, the abortion pill.
Another deadline Congress faces by the end of the month is the authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration and the safety and airport funding programs it administers.
But the Senate appears unable to approve the measure — let alone reconcile differences with the House-passed version — this month.
The Senate’s version of the bill is held up at the committee level over a dispute on pilot training hours.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee indefinitely delayed a scheduled June 15 markup of the measure as Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema and South Dakota Republican John Thune planned to introduce an amendment to allow hours spent on flight simulators to count toward the 1,500 flight hours needed for pilot certification.
In an Aug. 15 op-ed in the Washington Examiner, the senators said the adjustment would still require U.S. pilots to spend more time in cockpits than counterparts in other countries. And, they said, state-of-the-art simulators can provide training for circumstances like engine failure that pilots in training are unlikely to experience in a real aircraft.
But the issue is non-negotiable for other key senators.
In a floor speech that day, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who chairs the Aviation Safety Subcommittee, said a vote to change the 1,500-hour rule would “mean blood on your hands when the inevitable accident occurs as a result of an inadequately trained flight crew.”
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, acknowledged in a committee meeting at the end of July that the issue was holding up the bill.
“Unfortunately, the debate over 1,500-hour rules has stymied the legislation,” she said in response to a question from Kansas Republican Jerry Moran. “We’ve suggested many, many different avenues to try to move that forward. But Sens. Thune and Sinema still remain adamant. So until that issue is resolved, we’re not moving forward in the committee, unfortunately.”
After the meeting, she told reporters the holdup was threatening the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization bill, speculating that Congress may pass a short-term extension instead of a long-term bill.
“Right now, not being able to move forward unless we lower the safety standard is jeopardizing both bills,” Cantwell said, according to a transcript provided by her office. “Really, you’ll just get an extension. Sept. 30 comes pretty fast when you come back after Labor Day, and you have holidays in the middle.”
If that issue can be resolved, Cantwell is ready for a Senate markup, committee spokesperson Tricia Enright said last week.
As of early September, the sides appeared to remain at an impasse. And Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a former Commerce Committee chairman, accused Schumer of interfering in committee business.
“The conditions that Democrats are putting down for moving the FAA bill are, 1) you can’t offer your amendment in the committee and 2) you can’t offer it on the floor,” Thune told Politico last week. “Schumer’s telling people that he won’t bring the FAA bill to the floor to preclude me from offering an amendment, which as a senator is my right to do.”
Extensions for FAA authorization are not uncommon. Congress passed six extensions before approving the current authorization in 2018.
Pandemic preparedness reauthorization
Congress is set to reauthorize the Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act for the first time since a global pandemic killed more than 1 million Americans and upended major sectors of society, including health care and education.
The House and Senate have differing views on how to do this, with senators taking a mostly bipartisan approach and House lawmakers pressing forward with a bill that leans much more into Republican ideology.
The law, originally enacted in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina, has been reauthorized more than once since then, but this is the first time lawmakers are attempting to prepare the country for future public health crises after experiencing a global pandemic.
Unlike some other items on this list, there is no firm deadline to pass a rail safety bill.
But advocates hope to make changes to strengthen safety requirements while the Norfolk Southern derailment that spilled toxic chemicals near East Palestine, Ohio, in February is still fresh in lawmakers’ minds.
The Senate appears poised to pass a rail safety measure, but a companion bill is stuck in the House, where Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, has urged patience as an investigation into the derailment unfolds.
Schumer has said a rail safety bill will also be a priority for the chamber this session.
The bill, introduced by Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Pennsylvania’s Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Democrats, is ready for a vote by the full Senate after winning Commerce Committee approval in May.
But it faces a roadblock in the House. Graves has said that the National Transportation Safety Board should complete its investigation of the East Palestine derailment and share its findings before Congress acts.
“The NTSB’s accident investigation continues, so instead of speculating about all the potential factors, I want to fully understand the facts involved,” Graves said in a statement earlier this year. “When we have the facts, Congress can consider what next steps may be necessary.”
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Rick Larsen of Washington, and the top Democrat on the rail subcommittee, Donald Payne Jr., of New Jersey, have called for hearings on rail safety legislation, but the committee has not held one.
NTSB investigations usually take 12 to 24 months, board spokesman Keith Holloway said. The full report on the East Palestine derailment could be finished by early 2024.
If Graves sticks to his timeline, that would preclude consideration of the bill this month.
Two bipartisan efforts have been introduced. One is led by Transportation and Infrastructure member Emilia Sykes, a Democrat, and Bill Johnson, a Republican, both from Ohio.
Democrat Chris Deluzio, whose Western Pennsylvania district borders East Palestine, is the lead sponsor of a similar rail safety bill.
In a Sept. 8 news conference, Deluzio blamed lobbying by railroads for the standstill. He called for action in the House, and said he was hopeful if the Senate passed a bill it could prompt movement in his chamber.
“Leadership should move this bill forward,” he said. “And certainly, I hope with momentum coming out of the Senate, when they get it passed, will help drive that.”
Tuberville and military nominees
Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama shows no sign of ending his months-long blockade of more than 300 senior military nominations as he protests a Department of Defense policy that grants leave and travel allowances for non-covered reproductive care, including abortions.
The Biden administration policy was announced in the wake of the June 2022 U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. The decision triggered multiple states, many where military personnel are stationed, to severely restrict or ban the practice.
Tuberville, a Republican, refuses to participate in the Senate’s time-saving unanimous consent approval of large blocs of military promotions, which routinely occurs all in one floor action. As the months have gone by, more top leadership roles have gone unfilled, or some in cases placed in the hands of lower-ranking generals in an acting capacity.
Voting on each nominee, one-by-one, would take up hundreds of hours of floor time in the upper chamber.
Tuberville’s holds prompted the secretaries of the Air Force, Army and Navy to publish a joint op-ed in the Washington Post decrying the delay as “unfair to these military leaders and their families.”
“Each of us has seen the stress this hold is inflicting up and down the chain of command, whether in the halls of the Pentagon or at bases and outposts around the world,” secretaries Carlos Del Toro, Frank Kendall and Christine Wormuth wrote.
As of mid-September, 319 officers general and flag officer nominations have been held up in the Senate. If the holds don’t lift by the end of the year, nearly 650 of the more than 850 general and flag officer nominations will be affected, according to a Department of Defense official.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly warned that Tuberville’s blockade threatens national security.
The list of unfilled posts now includes the Marine Corps commandant, the Army chief of staff and chief of Naval operations.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s term expires at the end of this month.
“This is unprecedented. It is unnecessary. And it is unsafe,” Austin said on Aug. 14 at the retirement ceremony for Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations.
“This sweeping hold is undermining America’s military readiness. It’s hindering our ability to retain our very best officers. And it’s upending the lives of far too many American military families,” Austin said.
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