CHN: Appropriations Stalls on the Senate Floor

Senate work on a “minibus” package of three appropriations bills – Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Transportation-HUD – stalled shortly after it began. While senators voted overwhelmingly in favor (95-3) of beginning consideration of the package (H.R. 4660)  on Tuesday, June 17, Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) effectively pulled the legislation from the floor on Thursday, June 19 when Republicans and Democrats failed to come to an agreement on the process for allowing and voting on amendments. Democrats had said only germane amendments would be allowed, but Republicans balked at Democrats’ initial insistence that amendments reach a 60-vote threshold for adoption. While negotiations continued last week, no agreement was reached, and the Senate headed into its July 4th recess not having voted on a single appropriations bill.
One amendment to the Senate package that particularly concerned advocates would let schools waive out of several school lunch and snack food requirements. Filed by Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), the amendment goes even further than a similar provision in the House bill by letting schools opt out of these standards if they believe compliance would force them to lose money or that it would be hard to buy products that meet the requirements, without providing any evidence to support their concerns. The Senate bill already made concessions in the whole grain and sodium requirements, the same area this amendment addresses. In addition, the bill allows for the inclusion of white potatoes in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) food package, but it also allows the USDA to cut potatoes from the package in the future if a mandatory study deems they shouldn’t be included. Both of these provisions would see Congress overriding recommendations from scientists, nutritionists, and health experts, a possibility that has concerned and angered advocates.

Another amendment, filed by Senator David Vitter (R-LA), would prohibit Census Bureau operations unless it includes questions about citizenship and immigration status in the 2020 census. Many advocates cried foul, saying this amendment ran counter to the goals of the U.S. Constitution and was an attempt to discourage participation in the census in order to skew congressional apportionment decisions. There was also concern that some of the harmful amendments added to the House Transportation-HUD bill would be offered in the Senate.

On the House side, floor action on its Agriculture appropriations bill (H.R. 4800) remains stalled in part because of controversy over similar amendments affecting nutrition requirements for schools and WIC. As reported earlier, the House was expected to vote its version of the bill in mid-June. However, work on the legislation was suspended shortly after it was taken up and is not expected to resume until later this summer, giving Republicans more time to shore up support for the controversial provisions. For more information on the Agriculture, Transportation-HUD, and other appropriations bills, see the June 17 Human Needs Report

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will take up the minibus again or will try to rearrange it in some way. Some believe the inability to reach a compromise on this package of bills, deemed relatively non-polarizing, signals that the attempt to pass bills individually or in small groups is effectively dead in the Senate. Both the House and Senate have now slipped on the initial deadlines they set for the appropriations process. It is unclear whether Congress will be able to get back on track with passing and conferencing individual bills, or some combinations of bills like a minibus or omnibus package, or whether they will opt for a temporary continuing resolution to keep the government funded when the new fiscal year begins this fall.

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