Congress

Progressives are holding back votes on the spending caps bill

Progressive Congressional Caucus leaders want more nondefense funding over the next two years

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., participates in the House Democrats' news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said Tuesday that the current bill to raise discretionary spending caps won’t pass the House unless it’s amended to allow more nondefense funding over the next two years.

“We do think that if we’re going to go negotiate, we should be negotiating from our strongest place and our strongest place is saying we want more nondefense spending. So that’s where many of us are at,” Rep. Mark Pocan said after a House Democratic Caucus meeting.

[A House floor vote on spending caps could divide Democrats]

The Wisconsin Democrat and his fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal said their members wouldn’t vote for the underlying bill unless the chamber adopts Jaypal’s amendment to add $67 billion combined to nondefense limits in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

The Washington Democrat’s amendment, which was made in order by the Rules Committee on Monday, would create equal spending caps for defense and nondefense accounts in both years — or $664 billion each in fiscal 2020 and $680 billion each the following year.

“We are whipping for my amendment and I think that we have something like 21 cosponsors on the amendment, including three committee chairs,” Jayapal said. “I think if my amendment passes — I think it would be very difficult, but I think we could get a majority, if not all of the progressive caucus members to vote for this.”

The Democratic leadership has already compromised with liberal members of their caucus by agreeing to back an extra $10 billion in fiscal 2020 and $12 billion in fiscal 2021 for private medical care programs at the Veterans Health Administration. That amendment, also made in order Monday night by Rules, will be offered by California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee.

[Trump refuses to raise budget caps, complicating his re-election fight]

But led by Pocan and Jayapal, the Progressive Caucus is trying to press their advantage. House Democratic leaders can only afford to lose 17 of their own on the vote, which is currently expected Wednesday but could change; that’s fewer than the number of cosponsors on Jayapal’s amendment.

“They did find some extra money in the Barbara Lee [amendment] to try to address about $10 billion. If I was leadership, I would find 22 more and call it a day,” Pocan said. “But I’m not leadership.”

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer downplayed caucus divisions after the morning meeting, putting the onus on the White House for declining to deal on spending caps. Without an eventual agreement, the current-law caps would be enforced through across-the-board cuts, known as a sequester, cutting next year’s budget by $125 billion below the current year, or 10%. Defense would be cut by $71 billion, and nondefense by $54 billion.

“We need to pass budget cap legislation. Either today or at some point in time in the future. Now, unfortunately the administration clearly is not very interested in coming to a responsible agreement on a cap and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Hoyer, D-Md. “If we’re going to get agreement, we need agreement between the House, the Senate and the president. That’s the reality.”

House Democrats have already punted on taking up a formal budget resolution for fiscal 2020, due to broad divisions within the caucus on the direction of taxes and spending over the next decade. The idea was to bridge those divides by focusing only on discretionary spending for the next two fiscal years, though that’s proving a difficult lift as well. Democratic leaders feel their negotiating position will be undercut if they can’t pass the caps-raising bill.

“With no Republican votes we can only lose 17 votes on anything,” said Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, who did not know if the bill will have enough votes to pass. “So obviously any caucus can bring down any bill and we have to figure out if we’re going to be able to govern or not and this is the first test of it.”

[Expect a ‘prolonged fight’ over spending caps]

The Kentucky Democrat said if the bill does not have enough votes to advance, “I think it’s going to be harmful if we aren’t able to do this because I think it minimizes our leverage in negotiations with the Senate and the White House.”

“We think these numbers [in the underlying bill] are the ones that position us best with the Senate and White House,” Yarmuth added.

 

‘Deeming’ the topline

Meanwhile, the House later on Tuesday will take up the rule for floor debate on Yarmuth’s caps bill. Adopting that rule will “deem,” or automatically set, a topline discretionary spending figure for House appropriators that aligns with the $1.295 trillion in the underlying legislation. That deeming resolution (H Res 293) would allow for the same “cap adjustments” in the separate bill, including Overseas Contingency Operations funds for the Pentagon and State Department, money for the 2020 census, and for IRS tax enforcement.

That means irrespective of what happens with the spending caps legislation on the floor, if the rule is adopted, House appropriators could start writing fiscal 2020 bills at the levels preferred by the Democratic leadership.

“I think in many ways this is a great experiment in fantasy Congress, kind of like fantasy football,” Pocan said Tuesday. “It’s not necessarily as real as we’re being told.”

Also watch: A year later, how Congress is spending school safety grants

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