Senate Dems set to roll out funding bills as shutdown threat approaches

Senate Democrats are preparing to unveil sweeping legislation in the days ahead on how to keep the government running for the next fiscal year, even as negotiators already write off chances of the chamber’s annual appropriations bills passing by the current Sept. 30 deadline to avoid a shutdown. 

Negotiators say they’re on track to release appropriations bills this week in the upper chamber, after months of hearings and as the House has already passed half of the dozen annual funding bills in recent weeks. 

But with roughly two months to go, a lack of an agreement on a top-line number, disagreements over defense funding and prickly legislative riders in areas like abortion mean appropriators have their work cut out for them. 

“I think it’s going to be a CR in September,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, referring to a continuing resolution, which will allow the government to remain funded at the current year’s fiscal spending levels to buy time for spending talks.  

Schatz said he thinks Congress will likely pass its funding bills after the midterm elections in November.  

“It’s the normal discussion about defense and nondefense, and definitional questions within,” Schatz said. “But that’s why it always feels impossible and then we always have a deal.” 

House negotiators passed their own version of the fiscal 2023 defense bill that provided about $761.7 billion in total funding last month. The figure is a $32.2 billion jump from the current fiscal year and also on par with what Biden asked for in his budget request. 

But that number for defense is well below what Republicans say is necessary for the coming fiscal year.  

In remarks to reporters last week, Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he plans to look “closely” at proposed dollars in the defense spending bill set to be unveiled soon.  

“Do they meet this challenge of inflation to begin with?” Shelby said. “And we’re not sure about that. Nobody’s got their number around that.”

Shelby has pointed to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate Armed Services Committee, which provided a $45 billion increase above Biden’s request for defense dollars, as “a good step in the right direction.”  

But he has signaled Senate Republicans aren’t ready to commit to a hard figure just yet, telling The Hill last week that they hadn’t “put a number on it yet.” 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, also acknowledged “inflation is important” in recent remarks to The Hill and said “we need to talk about it and figure out the sweet spot for that.” 

Tester also blamed the midterm fights for the failure to move toward a deal. 

“I really think this is being motivated more by electoral politics than anything, and the American people should be mad about that,” he said. 

While top negotiators have held talks in recent months around spending, negotiators have voiced frustration with the lack of an overall top-line agreement as they craft their funding bills. 

Shelby said he has been in communication with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) while Leahy recovers from hip replacement surgery. Shelby cast doubt on the chances of a meeting of the “Four Corners” — consisting of him, Leahy and the two top House appropriators — anytime soon to hash out negotiations. 

“Well, there won’t be one right now,” he told The Hill on Wednesday, adding Leahy was in rehab at the time.  

The Senate funding bills set to be unveiled this week are expected to be more partisan in nature, and there are also likely to be differences between the House and Senate bills, as some senators say they’ve been crafting their bills largely independent of House legislation that has been moving along.  

At the same time, the House is gearing up to bring more funding legislation to the floor ahead of the roughly monthlong August recess.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said leaders were eyeing bringing up the fiscal 2023 state and foreign operations funding bill, as well as two bills to fund the departments of Commerce, Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services.

However, Hoyer wouldn’t say when the House would consider bills that stand a tougher chance in the Democratic-led chamber, such as funding legislation for defense programs and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Of the six bills left, the three that I’ve mentioned are the ones we’re really focused on and trying to move,” he told reporters, adding “the others, as you know, have had problems in the past for one reason or another.” 

The road for passage in the Senate is tougher given the chamber is evenly divided between the two parties and bills need 60 votes to break a filibuster.  

Appropriators also face an added time crunch due to the coming midterm races, when control of both chambers will be up for grabs, especially as both of the Senate’s top negotiators are retiring at the end of the current Congress. 

Zach Moller, a former Senate Democratic budget aide who is now director of the centrist think tank Third Way’s Economic Program, told The Hill that the coming elections could complicate things for Democrats. 

“Republicans will have more leverage if they flipped one or both chambers,” he said.

At the same time, negotiators on both sides are expressing confidence about getting a final deal before a new session of Congress begins in January — when Leahy and Shelby will be retired.

“I think the force and will of Richard Shelby and Pat Leahy retiring, and wanting to pass a proper appropriations bill, is going to be an overwhelming political force,” Schatz said. “I’m confident we will have an omnibus.”