CHN: Senate to Show the Cost of Continuing Sequester Cuts: Will Bring Transportation-Housing Appropriations to the Floor

Following the FY 2014 budget plan passed by the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and her Committee have been approving spending bills on the assumption that the sequestration cuts will end.  The Senate’s total for appropriations is $1.058 trillion, $91 billion more than the House total.  The House assumes that the deeper sequestration cuts will continue in FY 2014. These different assumptions make the gaps between House and Senate versions of each appropriations bill wide.   They are even wider because the House protects military appropriations, preventing the Pentagon cuts scheduled by law for FY 2014 and shifting those cuts to domestic programs.
The Senate leadership will illustrate those differences by making the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill (S. 1243) the first it takes to the floor.  Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) filed a motion to cut off debate on July 18; that cloture vote will take place on Tuesday, July 23.  The leadership expects to be able to get 60 votes so that the bill can be considered.   Six Republicans voted for the Transportation-HUD bill in committee; if they join with all the Democrats and Independents to cut off debate, there will be enough votes.

The Senate Transportation-HUD bill is $10 billion or 20 percent larger than the House version.  With both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees having acted on this bill, the differences to specific programs are clear.  For example, the Community Development Fund is funded at $3.295 billion in the Senate bill, but at only $1.697 billion in the House.  The Senate bill has nearly $1 billion more than the House for the rental voucher program.  While even the House bill has more funding than this year’s $17.9 billion (including sequester cuts), its funding level is not adequate to reverse more than about one-quarter of this year’s lost vouchers, and so would continue the elimination of 100,000 rental vouchers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  The Senate bill provides enough funds to undo most of the up to 140,000 vouchers lost this year.

The House cuts funding for public housing by 16 percent below this year’s spending (including sequestration cuts).  Coming on top of several rounds of cuts affecting public housing programs over the past few years, maintenance and repairs will fall farther behind, with more units lost due to disrepair and families forced to live in substandard conditions.  The Senate provides $838 million more for public housing capital and operations than the House.  While the Senate’s funding does not undo all the losses of the past, it comes closer to meeting current needs.

Almost every program receives less in funding in the House bill than the Senate’s, unsurprisingly, including Homeless Assistance Grants (the House is 7.6 percent lower than the Senate)and lead hazard abatement (the House is 58 percent lower than the Senate and 56 percent lower than current year spending).  (For more comparisons of House and Senate Appropriations Committee funding levels for housing programs, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.)

In the transportation side of the bill, the Senate increases TIGER infrastructure grants to localities by $50 million (for a total of $550 million).  The House zeroes out this popular program, and rescinds $237 million previously appropriated but as yet unspent.

The Senate leadership wants to take up the Transportation-HUD bill in order to show the harmfulness of continuing the sequestration cuts, to try to build support for a negotiation with the House to replace the new round of cuts in FY 2014 with new revenues and other savings, mostly but not exclusively in Medicare.

The Senate leaders may also wish to bring the Labor-HHS-Education bill to the floor.  There the differences between House and Senate funding are particularly gaping.  The Senate bill is funded at $164.3 billion, about $43 billion more than the House (or 35 percent above House spending).  While neither the House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee nor the full Committee has taken up the bill so far, the full Senate Appropriations Committee has completed work on appropriations for these departments.  The House agreed-upon spending total for Labor-HHS-Education is 18.6 percent lower than this year’s levels, counting the sequester cuts.  The Senate bill is higher than this year’s spending, allowing for some of this year’s cuts to be reversed.

While a handful of appropriations bills may make it to the Senate or House floor, the prospects for the House and Senate resolving their differences and sending separate funding bills to the President for signing are dim.  Instead, Congress is likely to roll up most if not all of the appropriations bills into one stopgap spending measure (called a Continuing Resolution, or CR).  Agreeing even on such a temporary spending bill will be difficult.  The existing deficit reduction legislation, the Budget Control Act, requires that Department of Defense spending be reduced by $20 billion below current levels, so a temporary spending measure that simply continues this year’s funding will not be possible without changing the law.  (Domestic appropriations bills do not have to be immediately reduced; most of the required domestic reductions can be achieved by automatic cuts in Medicare and other mandatory programs.)

Reluctance to cut Pentagon programs, if nothing else, may force negotiators to the bargaining table to stop the sequestration cuts.  The President has threatened to veto legislation that continues sequestration.  Both he and the Senate leadership are calling for increased revenues to be part of a replacement package.  How close Congress will come to allowing a government shutdown when the fiscal year ends on September 30 is not knowable at this point; all that is sure now is that bridging the gaps between House and Senate will not be easy.   (See House  and Senate funding totals for each appropriations bill.)

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