Hoping to avoid a showdown over federal spending, the Senate is taking the lead in moving Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations bills by packaging the twelve FY 2012 appropriations bills that fund discretionary programs into smaller ‘minibus’ bills. These bills are expected to be less contentious and move more quickly than an omnibus bill or individual bills.
The first minibus combines the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD appropriations bills. The Senate spent the week of October 17 debating and offering amendments to the bill. Activists successfully opposed an amendment offered by Sen. Sessions (R-AL) that would have repealed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) categorical eligibility state option. Categorical eligibility allows states the option of counting as eligible for SNAP benefits and free school meals households in which all members receive benefits from certain means-tested programs. This means that SNAP applicants do not have to submit separate documents to establish eligibility, and can qualify even if their savings or other assets exceed SNAP’s guidelines. (Recipients of SSI and TANF-funded programs, all programs open only to very low-income households or individuals, can establish their eligibility for SNAP more easily under this provision.) Categorical eligibility also reduces administrative costs and simplifies enrollment. Eliminating this option, currently used by 40 states, would cut more than 1 million low-income people from the SNAP program, including many low-income working families with children. Some 200,000 children would also have lost free school meals. The vote failed 41-58.
Among the amendments adopted was one by Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) to extend the loan limit on mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to $729,750. The original extension expired on October 1, dropping the limit to $625,500. The amendment passed by a vote of 60-38. The Senate adopted an amendment (84-15) by Sen. Coburn (R-OK) prohibiting direct payments to farmers who have an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million. Emergency disaster relief funding was increased in two separate amendments, one by Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) and one by Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ). The former, which increased funding in the Agriculture bill by $110 million, passed 58-41; the latter, adopted by voice vote, added $365 million for the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
Before leaving for a one-week recess on October 21, the Senate agreed 82-16 to hold votes on a limited number of amendments and vote for passage of the minibus when they return on October 31. The full House passed its version of the Agriculture bill, H.R. 2112, but has not passed the Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD bills. The Senate will use H.R. 2112 as the vehicle for the minibus, sending it back to the House as a conference report. The Senate may have leverage in negotiations since it will have passed all three bills. When it comes back to the floor for final passage, the bill agreed to by the Senate/House Conference Committee will not be open to amendments.
Conservative House Republicans who would like to cut the overall spending level for FY 2012 below the $1.043 trillion agreed to in the Budget Control Act (PL 112-025) in August, and who would like to add controversial policy riders, may resist voting for minibus bills from the Senate. House leaders, however, have agreed to the strategy of using minibus bills and may need to seek bi-partisan support to pass them. The vehicle for the next minibus will likely be the Energy and Water Appropriations bill which has passed the House. It is unclear what other bills will be added to it.
Congress had hoped to finish work on Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations well before the November 23rd deadline for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to release a deficit reduction package (see description of the Committee’s work in an article in this Human Needs Report). It is clear that they will not meet that timeline, requiring them to pass another short-term funding bill known as a continuing resolution or CR. The current CR (PL 112-36) expires on November 18. A new CR to run through the middle of December will likely be added to one of the first minibus bills.