Senators can't agree on agency funding levels

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Republicans deride Democratic priorities in fiscal 2023 bills —with just two months until a shutdown. The lawmakers are failing to find agreement, even as Democrats hold back on some increases.

Senate Democrats last week introduced the chamber's full slate of 12 bills to set line-by-line fiscal 2023 spending at every federal agency, though they remain significantly divided with Republicans over how to avoid a shutdown in just two months. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, had held off on putting the bills forward in hopes he could strike an agreement with the minority party on top-line funding levels. Such a compromise has proven elusive, however, sparking Democrats to put forward their proposals without Republican support in an attempt to move the process forward. 

The upper chamber came closer to meeting Republican demands to increase defense and non-defense spending by equal amounts than their House counterparts. The Senate bills would provide an 8.7% boost to the Pentagon compared to the current fiscal year, far outpacing the House’s 4.6% bump. That left a smaller proportion for domestic agencies than the House provided and President Biden requested, though they would still see a 10% increase. That jump would be slightly larger if accounting for veterans health care costs, which lawmakers proposed moving to a different part of the budget. 

“It is my hope that by releasing these bills, and making clear what the priorities of Senate Democrats are, we can take a step closer toward reaching a bipartisan compromise after months of stalled negotiations,” Leahy said. “The stakes of inaction are too high to not complete our work.” 

Leahy noted that historically high rates of inflation would make a long-term continuing resolution to keep agencies funded at their current levels “untenable” and called on Republicans to resume negotiations “with the urgency that this moment requires.” Current funding is set to expire at the end of September. 

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., denounced the bills, saying they marked a step backward toward a possible resolution. He criticized Democrats for including “poison pill” provisions and for failing to include a sufficient increase for military spending. 

“Democrats know the path to a successful appropriations process, but today they chose to move in a different direction,” Shelby said. “Today’s effort shows we have a long way to go.  Democrats need to get serious or, regrettably, I believe we will end up with a long-term CR.”

The bills include many priorities for congressional Democrats and the White House, but serve as a starting point in negotiations. While the final bills will inevitably change to win over the requisite bipartisan support to pass the Senate, some of the provisions will remain in place. Here is a look at some of the most significant changes at agencies and how they differ from the bills the House has already put forward and, in some cases, approved. 

  • Environment: Senate Democrats had to find areas to reduce increases at some agencies and did so in ways that will affect certain environmental efforts. The Environmental Protection Agency would receive a $1.1 billion increase, though that is nearly half of the surge the House proposed. The Interior Department would get a bump of $600 million less than the House suggested and $800 million less than the Biden administration put forward. The Bureau of Indian Affairs would see among the biggest cuts compared to the White House’s blueprint, while the Senate nearly matched Biden’s proposal for the National Park Service and would seek to restore half of the job cuts NPS has endured since 2010. The agencies could still see historic spending increases thanks to a separate climate and tax deal that Senate Democrats hope to pass in the coming days. 
  • Health spending: Senate appropriators proposed a $21 billion emergency funding measure to support ongoing efforts to fight COVID-19, which has yet to get introduced in the House. As part of regular appropriations, the lawmakers suggested increasing spending at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to $9.1 billion, a whopping 40% increase. The senators proposed keeping funding flat at the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) at $1 billion. The House proposed nearly tripling the nascent agency’s budget. Senate Democrats, however, proposed creating a new Reproductive Health Care Access Fund with $350 million to help individuals pay for travel, treatment, lodging and child care related to abortion services after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade
  • Civil service: Senate Democrats chided the Biden administration for failing to provide a briefing on hiring issues that have plagued the federal government, as Congress required in the previous spending bill. They again called for the update, saying, “It is problematic that a number of agencies find it easier to request hiring and personnel flexibilities through legislation rather than through existing authorities, which contributes to the proliferation of agency-specific and position-specific hiring changes that make the system even more complicated and challenging to manage.” Another provision of the funding measure would block future administrations from unilaterally taking away civil service protections from segments of the federal workforce, as President Trump sought to do and has threatened to do again if reelected. The House attached a similar provision in its funding measures. Also similar to the House, the senators endorsed Biden’s proposed 4.6% pay increase for feds. 
  • Electric vehicles for feds: In their bills, House Democrats proposed creating a new, $100 million fund within the General Services Administration to jump start the replacement of the federal government’s fleet with electric vehicles. The Senate opted not to include the fund, citing budget constraints and agencies not prioritizing the initiative. The committee suggested providing GSA with a total of $1.2 billion less than the agency requested for fiscal 2023. 
  • Cuts to ICE: In a rare move, House Democrats proposed boosting funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement by $138 million. Senate Democrats fell more in line with their party’s typical—and with Biden’s—proposals, suggesting a $119 million cut. The reduction would be targeted at custody operations, with the lawmakers looking to reduce capacity for housing immigrants. Shelby highlighted the cuts as a particular area of disagreement. At Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, Democrats proposed a $1.7 billion increase, upping Biden’s request by more than $1 billion. Included in the new funding would be money to hire 300 new Border Patrol agents. 
  • Research: Senate Democrats suggested a massive $1.5 billion increase for the National Science Foundation, representing a 17% spending jump and more than doubling the proposal in the House. The lower chamber suggested keeping funding for agricultural research flat, while the senators proposed a $300 million increase. 

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site ("Senators Can't Agree on Agency Funding Levels, Even As Democrats Hold Back on Some Increases.")

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