Capping weeks of backroom talks, House Republicans filed a $1.1 trillion year-end spending bill Tuesday night — a giant package that’s both a last marker for this Congress and first step toward GOP control in the next.
The action followed a fretful 24 hours of delay and fine tuning by top leadership, who added a late breaking — and potentially controversial — provision related to the financing of presidential conventions.
Already, the abundance of policy riders — backed by trucking, mining and securities interests — shows the GOP’s new clout. But the giant measure also reflects a genuine give-and-take with Senate Democrats in hopes of averting a government shutdown veto fight with President Barack Obama.
“The bill will allow us to fulfill our constitutional duty to responsibly fund the federal government and avoid a shutdown,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). In her blunter style, his Senate counterpart, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), appealed to Democrats to support the measure.
“In today’s era of slam-down politics, we were able to set aside our differences,” she said. “Working across the aisle and across the dome, we created compromise without capitulation.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — herself a veteran of many past spending deals — withheld any decision but said she was “hopeful” she could support the package. “We have confidence in our appropriators as they have over the last weeks sought to negotiate a position that represents the values of our Caucus.”
Prior budget agreements made the task easier since the White House had already agreed to a freeze on domestic appropriations. The Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency, two favorite Republican targets, still face real cuts below current spending. But the broader picture is of a largely flat domestic budget with modest increases for scientific research, hiring more immigration judges or dredging the nation’s harbors.
Where big new money is added, it is largely to meet threats from overseas such as the deadly outbreak of Ebola in West Africa or the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Nothing on the domestic front comes close to the $5.4 billion in emergency funds dedicated to fight Ebola, for example. And where the administration won concessions from Republicans, it was at a price.
After years of effort, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission will finally get a substantial increase of $35 million — bringing its budget to $250 million. And the GOP agreed to also bring the much larger Securities and Exchange Commission up to $1.5 billion, a $150 million increase.
But as part of the bargaining, Republicans won an important concession for the financial industry related to “swaps push out” rules for banks under the Dodd-Frank reforms.
Indeed, the policy riders remain a political minefield hidden amid the more than 1,600 pages of bill text. The next few days are sure to be tense as the outside world — and industry attorneys — get to look at what was agreed upon behind closed doors.
A provision blocking the legalization of medical marijuana in the District of Columbia has already drawn outsize interest because of the national debate on this topic and local anger over the federal government’s interfering in the city’s affairs.
Elsewhere, Republicans appeared more circumspect. In the case of nutrition and school lunch standards promoted by first lady Michelle Obama — a clear flash point — the House retreated to compromises crafted by Senate Democrats.
School districts are promised more flexibility in meeting requirements for some items such as whole grain products. But this is far less than the broad waiver that had been promoted in the House.
The bargains struck regarding the Clean Water Act and other environmental issues appeared to require both sides to give ground. Democrats blocked some of the biggest ticket items impacting greenhouse gases. But even as the bill was filed, a legal dispute remained over how much the EPA and Corps of Engineers will be limited in a major rule-making that seeks to define what navigable waters come under federal control.
The administration’s allies believe the bill turns back the most obvious riders trying to block this rule. But an issue has arisen as to whether agriculture interests could be exempted from future enforcement.
Among the riders, the convention provision was a late arrival, added to the bill only hours before filing and in a leadership effort to help each party raise up to $20 million to finance the quadrennial presidential events.
The donations would be reported publicly — unlike much of the undisclosed corporate money now involved in politics. But traditional caps are greatly relaxed to the point where a wealthy individual could give as much as $324,000 per year to a national party.
“This makes the Great Train Robbery look like a petty misdemeanor,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime champion of campaign finance reform. “Republican and Democratic congressional leaders have entered into a Faustian bargain,” he said.
“To return the massive corrupting contributions raised by federal officeholders for the national parties that Congress banned in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.”
Eager to go home, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House is pushing for a floor vote as early as Thursday. Some short-term continuing resolution or CR will be needed to buy more time for Senate action. But the goal is to put most of the government on firm footing, free of shutdown worries through next September.
The sole exception is the Department of Homeland Security, which will be kept on a shorter leash so Republicans can revisit Obama’s immigration policy after Democrats surrender the Senate in January. But there’s no attempt to interfere with the operations of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the office in DHS that is charged with implementing Obama’s recent executive order.
Looking ahead to the new Congress, the package illustrates too an important dynamic that could influence the direction taken over the next two years.
Most bluntly, the clock will be ticking not just for Obama as the lame-duck president but also for a generation of older Republicans who will take back committee gavels in the Senate.
These are largely men, some already 80 or fast approaching that birthday. They blossomed first under Ronald Reagan and remember a Senate that once functioned better than today. But they are also significantly older than the Republican chairs who led them under Reagan and their window for getting things done is narrower.
The makeup of the Senate Appropriations Committee bears this out. Among the top six Republicans, whose fingerprints are on the bill now, the average age is 70 — a full eight years older than their counterparts when the GOP captured the Senate with Reagan’s landslide in the 1980 elections.
It’s a more Southern than Western cast, reflecting shifts in the party’s base. And much depends on whether the deep animus toward Obama will dominate in the new Congress — or whether these same senators will feel their own mortality and seize the moment to find compromises that can become law.
One telltale figure will be Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Last summer Alexander eulogized his mentor, Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader who died in June and whole trademark gracefulness earned him the title the “Great Conciliator” during the Reagan years. In November, Alexander won reelection and stands to inherit powerful committee posts impacting not just appropriations but Obama’s education and health care policies. But before Alexander’s new term ends, he will be 80, and time is running out for this former governor to make himself felt.
In this context, the spending bill now both preserves the authority of the Appropriations committees and represents something of an awkward truce with the president.
As directed under last December’s budget agreement, total discretionary spending is capped at just under $1.014 trillion. The Ebola dollars will be treated as emergency funds outside these limits. And the Pentagon and State Department share in an estimated $73 billion in overseas contingency or OCO appropriations that are also not subject to the budget caps.
Nonetheless, given the state of disarray today and bitter political climate, the task is far more daunting than prior lame-duck sessions in 1994 and 1980, when power also shifted to Republicans in Congress.
In 1994, all the appropriations bills were already enacted before Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” was swept into power. In 1980, five bills remained after the Reagan victory but in the lame duck these were completed in regular order with even a few grace notes.
Sen. Milton Young (R-N.D.), who was then the most senior Republican in the Senate, had opted to retire that same election year and so missed his chance to be the president pro temp when Republicans took over in January. Mindful of this disappointment, Democrats arranged for Young to serve in the post for a day on Dec. 5.
In a touching scene, his friend and Appropriations colleague, Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), who had been defeated in the same election, stepped aside and helped bring Young forward to the presiding officer’s chair.
“I really never thought this day would come,” Young told the Senate. Few think there will be another like in the current political climate.
Following is a section-by-section summary of major elements in the spending package:
—The Pentagon is promised $490.2 billion for its core operations and another $64 billion in OCO funds counted outside the budget caps. The OCO number is significantly more than Obama first anticipated last spring and reflects the stepped-up U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria as well as $175 million to aid Ukraine and Baltic states like Latvia in the face of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
—The State Department and foreign aid accounts, including almost $9 billion in OCO funds. The extra OCO funds will help preserve what’s become a greatly expanded refugee assistance program of just over $3 billion annually. Almost $1.9 billion is provided in disaster assistance — again heavily dependent on OCO support.
Closer to home, the bill provides an estimated $260 million for a basket of programs to help Central America address some of the economic and social ills that drove the spike in child migrants this past year. But after all the tough talk of standing up to Egypt on human rights, the agreement backs away from cutting Cairo’s $1.3 billion in military aid and instead makes a small but surprising cut in economic assistance.
—The cuts from the IRS are the most severe, and the $10.95 billion provided is $346 million below the tax agency’s current funding. This is relatively close to what House Republicans had first proposed and dramatically less than Obama had requested. But as part of the same bargain, the bill drops House language that would bar the IRS from playing its critical role in implementing the president’s Affordable Care Act.
—Nuclear weapon activities within the energy and water chapter of the bill continue to grow: The $8.2 billion provided is $387 million above current funding. For the Bureau of Reclamation, $50 million is provided to address drought conditions in the West — a major priority for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who oversees the bureau’s budget. And the bill directs that not less than $1.1 billion be provided for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for the Army Corps of Engineers — a $100 million increase.
—Major science agencies enjoy modest increases but often not enough to keep pace with inflation. The National Science Foundation’s budget would grow to $7.3 billion, for example, just $172 million more than this year. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology and Agricultural Research Service are virtually frozen at current spending as is the Office of Science in the Energy Department.
— The National Institutes of Health would receive just shy of $30.1 billion, a $150 million increase. But the bigger new money for NIH will come from its role in research and clinical trials related to Ebola.