Bitterness Lingers as Omnibus Talks Stumble Over Policy Riders

Senior appropriators attempted to pick up the pieces Thursday after a messy 36 hours laid bare just how far apart the parties remain on the fiscal 2016 omnibus.

With the House already done for the week and the Senate close, the relative quiet of the next several days will play host to negotiators hoping to strike a final $1.1 trillion catchall spending agreement before spending authority (PL 114-53) expires on Dec. 11.

But the to-do list is long, the outside pressure significant as negotiators face a shrinking calendar. The potential for another impasse is high given the mound of contentious issues that are unresolved.

Should negotiators fail to strike an agreement in the days ahead, leaders will need to advance a continuing resolution, a disappointment for new Speaker Paul D. Ryan, or face another shutdown. Republicans have been insistent that they do not see a funding lapse as a possibility.

Democrats Thursday continued to seethe at the GOP’s opening offer on outstanding policy and funding issues. They said Republicans’ Tuesday night wish list includes more than 30 “poison pills” that must be dropped if they want to attract Democratic support.

Democrats sent their first counteroffer on Wednesday evening, but details were few.

The two sides will trade offers back and forth until negotiators can strike a deal.

Policy Riders Proliferate

At play, according to senior appropriators, is a rider targeting the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers' so-called “Waters of the U.S.” rule, as well as language related to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

Also at issue are several provisions targeting financial and workplace regulations, including the Department of Labor's so-called fiduciary rule. Some media reports indicated Republicans took contentious immigration and Planned Parenthood riders off the table in order to focus their list of asks. There are also some outstanding funding issues that need to be resolved.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he still hopes to file the text of an agreement by Monday. Such a timeline — if all goes smoothly — would allow both chambers just enough time to clear the legislation without the need to pass another short-term continuing resolution, even though leaders of both parties have said they are open to such a stopgap.

“I think as we get closer to the deadline and need to file a bill, which will be the first of next week, that’s when you’ll start to see things really start to shake out. Right now I think things are still very fluid,” said Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., a senior House appropriator.

Rumors also continued to swirl about potential outside legislation that could be attached to the omnibus, including bills related to the U.S. visa waiver program, tax extenders, removal of the oil export ban and a renewal of health care programs for the first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

Ryan Rallies Support

Ryan continued to distance himself from the talks, even as he tried to sell the catchall to his conference during a meeting Thursday morning.

The Wisconsin Republican reportedly laid out the different scenarios — an omnibus, long-term continuing resolution or a shutdown — and explained why a full spending plan is the best approach. He also reviewed party breakdowns from recent votes on appropriations bills and CRs, explaining how the level of Republican support could determine how conservative the final deal is, according to lawmakers in attendance.

“He was trying to argue, 'Look at the crap sandwich I have, which really wasn’t of my making. But I’ve got to try to make lemonade out of some lemons right now,’ ” said Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie explained Ryan’s pitch more bluntly.

"I think both Paul Ryan and Hal Rogers are managing expectations,” he said, adding that he would not vote for the final product.

Many House Republicans leaving the meeting said they would reserve judgment until the omnibus is released.

That did not stop different GOP factions from trying to influence negotiations.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, said his group recently submitted a wish list. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus also listed their priorities, indicating their votes are potentially in play.

Salmon said the HFC has settled on four policy priorities. The group wants to block a campaign finance provision pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as a “bailout of the insurance companies.” Salmon said the roughly 40 members also would like to see language included that would give states more control over funding for Planned Parenthood and address refugees from the Middle East.

Despite the floating proposals, it was unclear how much support a potential omnibus would receive from the GOP, since two-thirds of Republicans voted against the October budget agreement (PL 114-74) that set this year’s spending levels and fewer than 100 members of the party voted for the current CR.

“From what I’m understanding, it’s all in flux right now. It’s all in the mix,” said Salmon. “But I’ve never sensed on any omni the kind of cohesiveness within the conference that I am today. I think that there’s a lot of good will right now toward the leadership. Moving forward, I think there’s a lot more of a can-do attitude –let’s try to figure out a way to yes.”

Massie once again was not optimistic.

"It does seem like people who don't plan to vote for it are trying to negotiate for something,” said Massie.

Democrats See Reversal

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to bristle over the GOP’s initial omnibus offer.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slammed the Republicans' proposal at a news conference, calling it a “tea party policy wish list” and a complete reversal from weeks of work done by appropriators to find common ground on spending levels and policy riders.

“That bipartisan work was given to the Republican leadership, and they came back with a proposal to us that completely erased all of the work that had been done to reach compromise on these riders,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi said she had asked Republican leaders weeks ago to reach a spending agreement by Nov. 20, so that Congress could vote on the package this week, well before the Dec. 11 deadline.

“Instead, there’s been this long, drawn-out process which so far has not produced very much,” she said.

Pelosi added that she let appropriators craft the Democratic counteroffer.

She seemed to attribute the discord between the two sides to Ryan’s greenness in leadership.

“Let’s just say this is the first time for some in this process,” Pelosi said.

Some senior Democratic appropriators said they felt blindsided by the GOP’s opening offer, which they said included some items they thought were already off the table.

“All the riders appeared again,” said José E. Serrano of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS and agencies that oversee financial regulations. “That’s the big problem.”

Emma Dumain, Lindsey McPherson and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.