| WASHINGTON, July 13
WASHINGTON, July 13 This year was supposed to be
different for Congress.
U.S. lawmakers expected that a promising budget deal reached
after a government shutdown last year would herald a new normal
for passing annual spending bills, moving Congress away from the
crisis-driven approach and resulting economic jitters of recent
But the spending bills have been derailed in the Senate by
election-year politics and a war over Republican amendments that
range from thwarting curbs on power-plant carbon emissions to
restoring potatoes to a government nutrition assistance program.
With a new fiscal year looming on Oct. 1, a stopgap funding
measure of the type that has kept the federal government afloat
in fits and starts for five years looks increasingly likely,
along with the risk of another government shutdown.
Congress starts a five-week recess on Aug. 1 and has about
10 work days in September before lawmakers break for a month of
campaigning for November congressional elections.
"Prospects don't look good at the moment" for the 12
spending bills, said Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican
on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This is an election
year and this is tough politics."
Nothing has illustrated that sentiment more vividly than the
brawl over an amendment fighting new Environmental Protection
Agency rules to curb power plant carbon emissions that Senate
Republican leader Mitch McConnell tried to attach to a package
of three spending bills.
McConnell, locked in a heated re-election fight in coal-rich
Kentucky, argued that a simple majority for amendments should
apply to appropriations bills, rather than the 60-vote threshold
he has insisted on in the past.
As the pro-coal amendment was likely to draw significant
support from Democrats also facing re-election battles, Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to budge on the 60-vote
threshold and pulled the three bills from the floor in June.
The two sides remain deadlocked.
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers
University in New Jersey, called the dispute election-season
"trench warfare," with Reid moving to protect his vulnerable
majority from votes that might cost Democrats seats in November.
Lawmakers had seen a strong chance of properly executing
their constitutional spending powers this year because the
post-shutdown budget deal had set top-line spending levels for
discretionary programs for two years, eliminating a major source
of division. All they had to do was divide up the money.
Now some on Capitol Hill are wondering what lawmakers' work
will come to this year if that opportunity is squandered.
Allocating taxpayers' money makes up a significant part of
Congress's work: about a third of the House of Representatives'
roll call votes so far this year, 115 out of 378.
"It seems to me we spent all week doing, so much of the
time, nothing," Reid said during an appropriations debate last
month. "Sadly, I am sorry this is the norm around here."
Things are somewhat better in the Republican-controlled
House, where six of 12 spending bills have passed. But the
latest, a $34 billion energy and water programs bill approved on
Thursday, drew a veto threat from the White House because it
included provisions to block some new environmental regulations.
The last time Congress succeeded in passing all 12 bills on
time was in 1996. In almost 40 years, lawmakers accomplished the
task just four times.
Greater political polarization has increased Congress's
reliance on stopgap measures to fund the government, political
science professor Sarah Anderson found in a 2012 study at the
University of California, Santa Barbara.
Anderson said spending bill delays are even longer when one
party is split. With the rift between mainstream Republicans and
the conservative Tea Party wing, the situation now is "probably
pretty close to as bad as it gets," she said.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski,
a Democrat, is refusing to give up on the spending bills. She
insists she has not started work on a continuing resolution, or
CR, to extend funding past Sept. 30.
A CR would rely on the previous year's funding levels until
lawmakers hammer out a final bill. This places a burden on
federal agencies, making it impossible for them to carry out
some basic functions such as hiring because of budget
Mikulski did not rule out an "omnibus" spending bill that
combines individual appropriations bills and acknowledged that
amendments are threatening to derail the process.
"For anybody that has other amendments, leave us alone. Let
us get our bills done," she implored in a committee hearing on
The same politics driving those legislative embellishments -
looking good in an election year - may help avoid a government
shutdown a month before voters go to the polls.
"I think both parties would ultimately vote for a CR," said
Shelby, who is from Alabama. "Nobody wants to shut the
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham)