Quick Hit – March 15, 2016

Budget Talks, Mark-Ups, and What’s Coming Up:

What Happening with the Budget? 

Congress is again struggling to set a budget topline number from which the appropriations process can flow. We have lived without a budget in years past, and likely will again this year.  As reported in previous Quick Hits, the budget itself is a political document, not law. Appropriations bills are law. A two-year topline number was agreed last year; however, many in defense circles want to revisit that topline in order to increase defense spending for FY17. How to increase defense spending is the underlying issue. Particularly in an election year, asking Senators and Representatives in vulnerable races to take difficult votes on things like budget amendments is always a balancing act for Congressional leadership.

Conflict Inside House GOP…

rep. jim jordan - qh 3.15
Chairman of House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)

Monday night, the House Freedom Caucus voted in opposition to the GOP leadership’s 10-year budget plan. The new plan, proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA), aimed to maintain discretionary spending levels at $1.07 trillion, the amount determined in the October 2015 budget deal, offset by a series of bills that would cut mandatory spending levels by $30 billion. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Chairman Price hoped this plan would appease the party’s far right contingent. Now that the plan has been rejected, the GOP will need to regroup. The markup for the bill could happen as early as Wednesday, with a vote on the floor next week before the House breaks for Easter.

Without the support of the 40-member Freedom Caucus or a significant number of Democrat crossover votes, it is unlikely the bill will pass.

On the Senate Side…

The Senate is not hampered by the same party tensions that have been causing trouble in the House. Last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., flanked by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., talks to reporters on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, following a closed-door policy meeting. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks to reporters on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, following a closed-door policy meeting. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“We’ll be using the topline that was agreed to last year in order to move forward on the Senate appropriations”

As far as the Senate leadership is concerned, the topline has already been decided, and will proceed with a budget plan that aligns with that initial agreement made last year.

The Bottom line…

The end goal of the budget negotiations is to agree on a spending topline that will set the appropriations process in motion. Congress’s main job in the process is to pass the 12 appropriations bills that will fund the government for the next fiscal year, but that cannot happen before deciding how much will be spent overall.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodgers is caught between a strong will from the Republicans to reduce spending and keeping the budget process moving along in order to pass appropriations legislation out of committee on schedule (typically April-May each year). Chariman Rodgers commented last week:

“What I don’t want us to do is blow up the process, make it impossible to pass bills”

And in regards to cuts to mandatory spending:

“So long as it’s not attached to or part of the appropriations bill, I have no problem with that.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have set a goal to pass all 12 appropriations bills individually, to avoid a catch-all bill at the end of the year. This has not been accomplished since 1994.

Congressional Confirmations

johnkingSecretary of Education — John King

On Monday, John King was confirmed in a bipartisan vote as the Secretary of Education. The bipartisan effort is not a major triumph in this case, as King has already been serving as acting secretary since the beginning of the year and will likely not serve beyond the one year left in the Obama administration.

Republicans will not demonstrate the same level of compromise for the open Supreme Court seat, which remains empty and is likely to stay that way until after the election:

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Secretary of the U.S. Army — Eric Fanning

eric fanning - qh 3.15After being nominated by President Obama for Secretary of the Army in September, Eric Fanning was confirmed for nomination by a voice vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday. Fanning’s nomination now advances to a full Senate vote.

The main obstacle to Fanning’s confirmation comes from Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who has vowed to delay the nomination until President Obama agrees to end his campaign to close Guantanamo Bay and transfer prisoners to US facilities (some of which are located in Roberts’s home state of Kansas). Similar to King, if Fanning is confirmed his position is not guaranteed in the next administration.

Of note, if Fanning does become the Secretary of the Army he will be the first openly gay man to  hold a leadership position in military service.

Coming Up On the Calendar:

The Senate will break this Friday, March 18 and reconvene after Easter on Monday, April 4.

The House will be in session until next Wednesday, March 23, and reconvene on Tuesday, April 12.

Hearings season is in full swing and bill mark-ups are about to begin. Appropriations bills from Milcon/VA and Defense will be marked up over the next month and will proceed to the floor of the House by May.

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