Politics

Budget Overhaul Panel Can’t Pull It Together in Time for Thanksgiving

Lowey: Reporting out final product as-is would ‘doom it to failure’

Rep. Steve Womack, says that while the joint committee package does not completely satisfy every member of the panel, “that is no reason for us not to move forward and finish this.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The special select panel charged with overhauling the congressional budget process on Thursday punted a final vote on recommendations until after Thanksgiving amid disagreement by its two leaders over when the panel should act.

The committee is scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m. Nov. 27, three days ahead of the Nov. 30 deadline for the committee to report a bill.

House Budget Chairman Steve Womack and House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, the select committee’s leaders, agreed to recess the meeting until after Thanksgiving when it became clear there would be a problem getting a quorum as senators on the committee began to leave town.

Lowey also wanted to postpone the vote to give Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York time to reach agreement on Senate floor consideration of the budget process bill, which among other things would make the annual budget resolution a biennial exercise. A Democratic aide said that without an agreement, there is worry the Senate could approve a “poison pill” amendment that would sink the measure.

Lowey said McConnell and Schumer have not reached such an agreement for consideration of whatever bill emerges from the committee, which will require 60 votes to advance in the Senate. “That concerns me greatly, since it imperils all the work we have done to date,” Lowey said after she and Womack returned to the hearing after a break.

Until an agreement is reached, Lowey said, “it is my strong belief that we should not report out our final product since doing so could doom it to failure.”

Womack said while he appreciated Lowey’s concerns, “nothing has changed.”

Womack noted that the law that established the joint committee lays out the procedures for Senate consideration. He said while the joint committee package does not completely satisfy every member of the panel, “that is no reason for us not to move forward and finish this, across the finish line, without regard to what the prospects would be for what leadership may intend to do one way or the other.”

Annual reconciliation

Earlier, the 16-member group unanimously adopted an amendment to its biennial budgeting proposal to make sure there is an opportunity to use the budget reconciliation process every year, as long as Congress adopts a budget resolution every other year.

The panel voted 16-0 for the proposal from Republican Sen. Roy Blunt to maintain the ability to use reconciliation every year a budget resolution is in effect, as long as Congress adopts a budget in non-election years that contains instructions to the relevant committees.

Reconciliation directives are a powerful tool allowing authorizing committees to draft legislation changing mandatory spending programs or tax laws that are not subject to filibuster in the Senate.

House and Senate Republicans, for example, were able to use the fiscal 2017 budget instructions to write what became the ultimately unsuccessful health care law “repeal and replace” bill. They were then able to turn around within months and draft what became the largest tax code overhaul in three decades under the authorities in the fiscal 2018 budget resolution.

“This just gives the Budget Committee more flexibility,” Blunt said.

It had been unclear whether the biennial budget proposal, under which Congress would only adopt a budget every two years, would allow annual reconciliation. Blunt said he was told that the House parliamentarian believed that the language of the biennial budget proposal agreed to by the committee allowed annual reconciliation. But he said he also was told that the Senate parliamentarian was “not as sure.”

Lowey initially objected to the amendment, saying there was no need to have more than one reconciliation opportunity per budget resolution, and she urged a “no” vote. When it came time to vote she said she had been “persuaded” and voted “yes.”

The mechanics of how to provide for annual reconciliation in a biennial budget are still unclear.

Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue said he believes that the two-year budget resolution would have to contain a set of reconciliation instructions for the first year and the second year in order to do reconciliation in the second year.

But Sen. James Lankford said it also would be possible for the Budget Committees to write and adopt reconciliation instructions in the second year. “That would be my assumption,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “It’s not worked out.”

Under a unanimous consent agreement reached by the committee, an amendment needs the support of the majority of the eight Democrats and eight Republicans on the panel.

‘Bipartisan’ budget blueprint

The committee adopted three amendments, rejecting eight others, while two were withdrawn by their sponsors.

An amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on behalf of himself, Perdue and Blunt provides for the option of a “bipartisan” budget resolution in the Senate that would need the support of at least half the Democrats and half the Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee to be reported to the floor. The panel adopted the amendment 14-0 with the support of seven Republicans and seven Democrats, with two absent for the vote.

The proposed bipartisan budget would include a target ratio for public debt as a share of gross domestic product, as well as annual targets for health care spending, tax breaks or “expenditures” as they are called in the amendment, discretionary spending and revenue, with the aim of developing a “glide slope” to reduce the debt.

“While this amendment creates no guarantee that the senate will rise to the occasion, it does create a pathway and opportunity for the Senate to do that,” Whitehouse said. He said Schumer supports it.

Any reconciliation bill emerging from the bipartisan budget resolution would still only need a simple majority to pass in the Senate, but it would also need support from 15 members of the minority party in the Senate if the amendment became law.

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