CQ Budget Tracker News: Special Report: Omnibus May Be Within Reach

  • by BPC Staff
  • on October 20, 2014

Oct. 16, 2014 – 4:15 p.m.

Special Report: Omnibus May Be Within Reach

By George Cahlink

In a Congress defined more by what it hasn’t done than any legislative achievements, it would seem a long shot to pass an omnibus fiscal 2015 spending package in what’s sure to be a partisan lame-duck session. But lawmakers are closer than many assume on spending decisions due to last year’s budget deal, and a fractured Congress still could cobble together a catchall bill that would provide fresh spending for the government — that is, if they decide to try.

So far, partisan divisions have kept Congress from sending any of the individual spending bills to the president, and the government is operating under a stopgap funding measure (PL 113-76) through Dec. 11. Moreover, if Republicans win control of the Senate, they may simply try to extend that funding into the next Congress, where they could re-write the bills to reflect GOP priorities or freeze funding in place for most, if not all, agencies for the rest of fiscal 2015.

Republican Ted Cruz of Texas and other conservatives tried before recess to punt spending decisions into the next Congress, arguing that lame-duck lawmakers should not have the final say on fiscal 2015 spending. Their argument failed to gain momentum before the election, but might resonate later in the session. “Americans cannot trust politicians they can no longer hold accountable at the ballot box,” Cruz said.

Even so, bipartisan seeds for an omnibus were planted last December when lawmakers forged an accord (PL 113-67) that set both domestic and national security spending levels for fiscal 2014 and 2015. The deal gave Congress a funding roadmap for fiscal 2015, setting spending less than 1 percent above current levels at $1.014 trillion. In turn, it’s allowed both the House and Senate appropriations panels to write nearly all their fiscal 2015 bills, even as they have faltered on the floors.

Appropriators insist the narrow funding gap and their preliminary work signals an omnibus is not out of reach. Indeed, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told staffers to use the current recess to review the differences between the chambers, so that omnibus negotiations could begin in earnest on Nov. 5 — the day after the elections. Her House counterpart, Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, said crafting an omnibus should not be a “Herculean” task, and that, given the pre-set funding levels, “it’ll be a lot like last year.”

House and Senate leaders will have a small window of time when they return to decide whether to shoot for an omnibus — or settle for a continuing resolution that lasts until early 2015 or even through the end of the fiscal year.

But if they decide to punt on an omnibus, it won’t be because the chambers are too far apart.

Finding Common Ground

Not only are the overall funding levels nearly frozen for fiscal 2015 — less than $200 billion above last year — but the budget deal also set caps for defense and non-defense discretionary spending. As a result, there are few of the yawning gaps of tens of billions of dollars for individual spending bills that have derailed House and Senate appropriations plans in recent years.

In the absence of major funding fights, the biggest obstacles to action on the bills so far this year have been proposed policy riders. Several bills stalled in their Senate appropriations subcommittees after Republicans threatened to force votes on amendments limiting EPA regulations, cutting funding for the health care overhaul and scaling back the federal role in education.

Many of the riders were aimed at scoring political points leading up to the elections, and party leaders should be less interested in forcing votes in a lame-duck session. Ultimately, the most contentious add-ons, seeking to re-order federal policies, would seem likely to fall out in final negotiations, as they did in the fiscal 2014 omnibus.

Potential Sticking Points

Still, appropriators will have to resolve several spending and policy issues that have proved vexing for the 113th Congress.

Lawmakers’ decision on funding for the Pentagon’s war funding account will be complicated by calls for troop assistance in combating the Ebola virus, ongoing operations against the Islamic State, questions over a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the role of the National Guard in dealing with child migration on the U.S. southern border. Fights over child migration and Ebola funding could spill over into domestic bills as well.

Additionally, they will have to close a $2.7 billion difference in funding on the State-Foreign Operations bill, the result of an accounting maneuver by Senate Democrats to make more domestic dollars available elsewhere in the budget. Thus far, Republicans have resisted the move and a final decision will have affect several other bills.

Given those ambiguities, it’s not surprising that Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, who met privately with appropriators in both parties before they left for the campaign trail, offered a preference, but no prediction, on what would happen in a lame duck.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that getting to regular order and working together to get an omnibus would be a good thing for everyone,” he said.

Inside a Possible Omnibus



Oct. 16, 2014 – 3:02 p.m.

Omnibus Preview: Energy-Water

By George Cahlink

Where House and Senate appropriators agree: Both would provide funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, topping $5 billion. They also favor increased spending for the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons that would be above $8 billion. And the proposals back providing $1.2 billion for the naval reactor program.

Biggest differences in spending levels: The House and Senate are $1 billion apart in overall spending for the Energy Department. It includes the nearly $400 million they are apart on nuclear nonproliferation funding.

Biggest sticking point: Energy Department research programs. The Senate wants about $300 million more than the House for energy efficiency and renewable energy research programs, while the House wants nearly $120 million more for fossil fuel research than the Senate.

What it funds: Energy Department, Army Corps of Engineers, Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and nuclear weapons research, maintenance and production, as well as non-proliferation efforts.

House bill (HR 5016): $34.2 billion

Senate draft bill: $34 billion

Administration request: $33.7 billion

Fiscal 2014 level: $34.1 billion

What to Expect

Lawmakers would have to settle differences over Energy Department research spending if the usually bipartisan Energy-Water bill containing billions of dollars for Army Corps of Engineers projects is to be included in an omnibus.

As has been the case in recent years, funding for DOE research is serving as a proxy for larger policy fights over the nation’s energy strategy.

The House is pushing for about a $100 million cut in DOE renewable and energy efficiency research to $1.8 billion, which would be about $100 million below current spending, while the Senate wants $2.1 billion. On fossil fuel research, the House wants $593 million, while the Senate and the administration want a cut of almost $100 million over current spending to $475 million.

Like the fiscal 2014 omnibus, negotiators would likely ending up splitting the difference with both research efforts getting level funding, or a slight bump, for fiscal 2015.

While the chambers are in agreement in providing $5.1 billion for the DOE’s basic science research, there are also splits within that account on where the dollars should go. For example, the House would offer no new funding for research using certain climate change models, while the Senate would provide about $28 million for the modeling work.

The House would provide about $400 million more than the $5.1 billion sought by the Senate— for the Army Corps of Engineers, which would reflect projects authorized by the recent Water Resources Reform and Development Act (PL 113-121) and may win out. Meanwhile, a House-backed rider to allow individuals to carry firearms on Army Corps of Engineers lands seems likely to fall out.

The proposals are about $400 million apart on funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration with the Senate seeking about $11.8 billion compared to $11.4 billion in the House bill. Much of the difference is over a Senate proposal to add about $400 million to the administration’s request of $1.6 billion for NNSA non-proliferation programs, a lower level the House backs too. Any final bill is likely to move closer to the requested spending.

Contentious House policy riders, including provisions barring the Energy Department from considering greenhouse gas emissions in weighing liquefied natural gas export applications and another limiting the EPA’s role in interpreting the Clean Water Act, seem likely to fall out of a final deal. It’s likely to contain, as did the fiscal 2014 omnibus, a House-backed ban on funds for enforcing federal light bulb efficiency standards.

Any accord is unlikely to contain funds for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, despite the House’s proposal for $150 million in unrequested spending. The development of the facility is strongly opposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who for years has hampered any federal spending on Yucca.


Oct. 16, 2014 – 3:09 p.m.

Omnibus Preview: Interior-Environment

By George Cahlink

Where House and Senate appropriators agree: Both the House and Senate proposals would provide $1.1 billion for the Bureau of Land Management, $2.6 billion for the National Park Service and $1.4 billion for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Biggest differences in spending levels: The House and Senate are $600 million apart on EPA funding. Senate appropriators are proposing $8.1 billion, while the House bill would allocate $7.5 billion.

Biggest sticking point: Both plans would seek more than $4 billion for combating wildfires. However, the Senate would count $1.2 billion of those funds as emergency spending that do not count against budget caps, while the House would include wildfire spending within the caps.

What it funds: Interior Department and EPA

House bill (HR 5171): $30.2 billion

Senate draft bill: $29.5 billion

Administration request: $29.5 billion

Fiscal 2014 level: $30.1 billion

What to Expect

Lawmakers would have to resolve differences in EPA and wildfire spending, as well as jettison several contentious environmental policy riders if they expect to include the Interior-Environment funding measure in a final omnibus spending package.

While lawmakers are not too far apart on the bill’s overall spending — about a $600 million gap — they are about 9 percent apart on funding for the EPA.

House appropriators, who see the EPA as a conduit for many of the White House environmental rules the GOP opposes, would set funding at $7.5 billion, $700 million less than current spending and would cap the agency’s workforce size at 1989 levels. The Senate would provide $8.1 billion, which is in line with current spending and a slight boost about the administration’s $7.9 billion request.

Like the fiscal 2014 omnibus, negotiators are likely to settle on spending a bit below current EPA spending, but at a level they would come close to meeting the administration’s request.

Negotiators would also have to settle on how to they handle the bill’s funds for fighting wildfires. They are close on funding — the House is proposing $4.1 billion, while the Senate is seeking $4.3 billion. The difference is the Senate would designate $1.2 billion of those funds as emergency funds, which would not require offsets and would not count against budget caps.

It’s not yet clear how the issue will be resolved, although there has been increased bipartisan interest in both chambers in allowing more wildfire dollars to move to emergency accounts. Backers say shifting the money outside of the caps will make the funding more stable at a time when wildfires are on the rise in Western states.

Any final accord would also likely provide a one-year extension of the mandatory Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which provided $442 million for local governments in fiscal 2014 to help offset property tax losses due to nontaxable public lands located within their jurisdictions, particularly in the West.

A bipartisan deal would not contain controversial policy riders sought by Republicans to ban the implementation of a number of environmental regulations. They include proposals that would limit greenhouse gas emissions by power plants or the sulfur content of gas; change the definition of navigable waters under the Clean Water Act; require new financial assurances from hard-rock mining companies; and change the definition of fill material.

A deal could come on amending a controversial House policy rider that would bar the use of funds for Fish and Wildlife to begin enforcing the illegal trafficking of ivory. A compromise might allow exemptions for musical instruments that use ivory or requiring individuals that own ivory-based antiques to show a title proving the date it was acquired.

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