Confederate Flag Flap a Death Knell for Appropriations Work

The fiscal 2016 appropriations process effectively screeched to a halt Friday, the day after bitter divisions over a Republican Confederate flag provision sunk the Interior-Environment appropriations bill and apparently laid claim to the rest of the spending measures as well.

Appropriations work that had unfolded at a rapid pace through the early summer now appears to be over, given the tight timeline ahead of the August recess as well as the contentious nondefense programs, which sometimes split the GOP in the remaining fiscal 2016 spending measures that are ready for floor action.

The end was signaled when three House appropriators, including the chairman of the Financial Services panel, said Friday that they were told the $20.25 billion Financial Services spending bill (HR 2995) will not be considered on the House floor next week, as was originally planned.   Chairman Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., attributed the sudden change to “external forces” that have affected consideration of spending bills, a nod to Thursday's messy melee over a Confederate flag amendment that overtook consideration of the Interior-Environment bill (HR 2822).

“They said, ‘It’s a great bill. It’s been postponed,’” Crenshaw said, recounting his conversation with leaders. “The plan was always to have Interior and then do Financial Services and maybe that might have been the end. But I don’t know that things have changed, I know it’s been suspended.”

The news about Financial Services, the only other spending bill House leaders initially said they would bring to the floor ahead of the August recess, brings most appropriations work to a halt on both sides of the Capitol, given Senate Democrats’ blanket filibuster threat of any GOP spending measures on the floor in that chamber.

However, some final work is expected to continue at the committee level.

A GOP leadership aide said the party’s brass is looking for a way forward on spending bills.

“We’re discussing how best to move the appropriations process forward. Passing appropriations bills is one of the most basic responsibilities Congress has,” the staffer said.

This year’s process in the House ends not with the whimper many observers initially expected given vicious opposition from Senate Democrats and the White House, but with a bang, displaying just how much of a policy divide there is between the GOP’s establishment and more conservative wings. 

Crenshaw filed the measure for floor consideration Thursday afternoon, just after leaders canceled the remaining batch of votes on the Interior title, including the vote on the Confederate battle flag amendment. But it appears that plans shifted during the last 18 hours.

 House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., on Friday acknowledged that the process has slowed.

 “It's gonna be next to impossible,” he said of his goal to pass all 12 spending bills by the August recess. Rogers added that it “remains to be seen” whether leaders will need to begin looking toward a continuing resolution for September, when current budget authority expires. “The Senate inaction complicates things more than anything else,” Rogers said.

 The Interior title was the seventh fiscal 2016 measure that was considered by the House.

 Bruises and Embarrassments

The news came after a bruising 36 hours for GOP leaders, when they were dragged into a debate they could not control and did not want to have on a sensitive issue after nine parishioners were killed last month in racially motivated killings at a historically black church in South Carolina.

“Congressional Democrats have been working to grind the appropriations process to a halt since it began. Our leadership has asked for a thoughtful conversation to resolve this issue. To continue to use this issue as a political weapon and reject dialogue is just wrong,” the leadership aide said.

The Financial Services spending bill, meanwhile, plays host to different battles, including the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203), campaign finance laws, the District of Columbia and even abortion and marijuana. The sheer scope and variety of those issues tends to make the bill difficult to whip, particularly under the House’s unruly open amendment process.

With House Democrats united against every GOP spending bill – they, like their Senate counterparts and the White House, are pushing for new negotiations on sequester relief—the Republican whip team has needed to be meticulous in shoring up GOP support.

But as the chamber moved on from the easier to some of the more traditionally difficult domestic spending bills, it has become tougher to bridge the gap between centrist Republicans and the chamber’s more conservative flank.

Democrats predicted the appropriations breakdown after the Interior bill was pulled Thursday.

“I don’t see how any approps bill is going to come to the floor right now,” said Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on House Appropriations.

In the Pipeline

In the meantime, the focus of appropriations work will likely shift back to the committees, where House and Senate appropriators are looking to wrap up their final three bills.

The House Appropriations Committee is nearly done with marking up its fiscal 2016 spending bills – the only title remaining is Homeland Security, which the panel plans to consider on Tuesday.

Last on the docket for Senate appropriators are the Agriculture and Financial Services titles.

Outside of that committee-level work, however, or last-minute plans to tackle another spending bill on the House floor ahead of the August recess, appropriations work appears unlikely to move forward unless and until leaders sit down to begin budget talks. There's no sign those negotiations have begun.

Once Congress returns in September from the month-long recess, leaders will likely need to turn to pulling together a CR quickly unless there’s prior movement on a broader spending accord.

Republican appropriators on Thursday hoped leaders could push bills ahead.

“It doesn’t look real good, there’s no doubt about that, but I hope it’s not dead. I hope we can work it out. Because we were really doing such a good job of getting them out earlier, we’ve had such a good push to do that,” said Kay Granger of Texas, a senior GOP appropriator.

Leaders could choose to resume consideration of the Interior bill, try Financial Services or tackle one of the three other spending measures ready for consideration at the moment. But with all of the politically easier spending bills complete, none of the measures left are easy to control on the floor, and leaders may want to stay away in order to avoid tough votes.

Of the measures left in the pipeline, the House hasn’t considered the State-Foreign Operations spending bill (HR 2772) on the floor in years due to the messy list of policy headaches it generates, including abortion, foreign aid, climate change and embassy security.

 The same goes for the Labor-HHS-Education measure (HR 3020), which House appropriators reported through committee for the first time in six years. But the bill contains a bevy of domestic policy landmines for the GOP, perhaps most prominently funding for the agency that implements the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

House appropriators this week advanced the $20.65 billion title that funds the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and other rural development. While that measure is typically not among the most difficult to move, several provisions this year feature potential problems, including a new tobacco provision, menu labeling requirements and GOP divisions over horse slaughter. Democrats are also trying to target the crop subsidies provided in the bill, an effort that could attract some GOP fiscal hawks with populist tendencies.

Even if they manage to eke out one or two more bills, it still effectively means little given the unavoidable reality that none of the spending bills will be enacted into law in their current form due to Senate Democrats’ blanket filibuster.

Interior Revival Unlikely

Meanwhile, the future of the Interior bill is murky but bleak.

Republican appropriators say they hope the measure can be revived.

 “We're trying to explore ways to bring the bill back on the floor,” Rogers told reporters Friday without elaborating about the options available.

Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the former chairman who oversaw the bill, also said there’s a chance.

“I think eventually we will get our heads out of our rear ends and bring up the amendments, we pass them and then if the Interior bill passes, it passes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There’s worse things than losing a bill, and that’s what’s going on right now,” Simpson said.

But Democrats say they are highly doubtful leaders will be willing to resume such acrimonious debate.

 "I think the bill's done,” said Betty McCollum, D-Md., ranking member of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.

 Emma Dumain and Lauren Gardner contributed to this report.