Congress Struggles with Spending Debate

With only six days left under the current continuing resolution to fund the federal government, members of Congress continue to negotiate over an appropriations bill that will keep the government open through September 30, 2015, the end of the current fiscal year. While leadership in both chambers and both parties have indicated a desire to get a bill passed by the December 11 deadline, disagreements may force Congress to pass another short-term measure and regroup in early 2015 to pass a longer appropriations package. Senate and House Appropriations Committee chairs have stated that while negotiations on funding levels for most federal programs have been completed, legislators are still addressing several policy disagreements that could result in some form of government shutdown.

Here are more details on the current state of the spending debate:

What type of appropriations bill is the leadership hoping Congress will pass by December 11? 

The House and Senate leadership in both chambers and in both parties would like to pass a single omnibus appropriations bill that will keep the government open through the end of the current fiscal year. Failing that, Republican leaders would like to pass a combination continuing resolution/omnibus ("cromnibus") appropriations bill that would adopt 11 of the 12 spending bills and fund the bulk of the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year. Under the Republican plan, the bill would include one short-term continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security through March 15. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that if the House passes such a bill he would bring it to the Senate floor and support it in an effort to avoid a government shutdown on or after December 11.

What would be included in the cromnibus appropriations bill?

The cromnibus appropriations bill would include a number of straight appropriations bills, providing specific program funding for specific departments and programs. This would occur for those departments, agencies and programs where there is agreement on funding priorities. The appropriations bill would also include a number of continuing resolutions that fund some federal agencies through the end of the current fiscal year (September 30, 2015) at current levels. In total, 11 of the 12 appropriations bills necessary to fund the government would be adopted for the remainder of fiscal year 2015. The 12th appropriations bill would be a short-term continuing resolution for the Department of Homeland Security through March 15, 2015.

Why would the Department of Homeland Security only be funded through March 15?

Congressional Republicans are attempting to find ways to prevent President Obama from implementing his Executive Order on Immigration by using the "power of the purse." Congress can do this by specifically prohibiting the president from using any funds appropriated to the Department of Homeland Security to implement his Executive Order. However, the principle agency responsible for implementing the Executive Order on Immigration - the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency or ICE - is largely funded by fees paid by those who apply for visas, green cards, and citizenship, and receives no funding from the general fund. Therefore, Congress would have to go a step further and actually prohibit ICE from using the fees it collects to implement the president's Executive Order. So far, Republican leaders appear unwilling to take that additional step and are hoping to find a way around this issue by March 15 so that they can use the "power of the purse" to stop Executive Order implementation. President Obama's executive order would permit as many as five million undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits, and protect individuals in families where one or more members are citizens, from deportation.

Has the president agreed to sign the type of appropriations bill proposed by the Republican leadership?

At this point it remains unclear as to whether the president would sign an appropriations bill like the one described above that includes only partial funding for the Department of Homeland Security. In testimony before the House this week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stated that partial funding of the sort proposed by the leadership would seriously harm his department's ability to operate and provide the level of homeland security necessary. What the White House has made clear is that the president would veto any legislation that defunds his Executive Order on Immigration, and that it prefers a bill that would fund the entire government through September 30, 2015.

What are the sticking points to passing an omnibus appropriations bill right now?

In addition to finding a way to defund the president's Executive Order on Immigration, other significant disagreements exist between Senate and House negotiators, though generally they are disputes over policy and not funding levels. For example, negotiators on the Energy-Water bill (HR 4923) must find agreement on outstanding issues that involve, among others, the EPA's climate standards and the proposed Waters of the United States regulation, as well as a provision that would bar redefining of "fill material" under the Clean Water Act (PL 95-217). Aides working on the Financial Services spending bill (HR 5016) are still grappling with funding levels for the IRS, and Congress' top four appropriators must soon decide the fate of a new policy rider reining in the District of Columbia's new marijuana policy. Negotiators have yet to strike a final agreement on the administration's $6.2 billion emergency funding request for the Ebola virus. Meanwhile, negotiators have been able to find resolution on other issues such as foreign aid to Egypt and funding for the Capitol Police, according to senior appropriators.