Neither the House nor Senate has conducted legislative action between Christmas and New Year’s since December 31, 1970. Forty-two years ago, members of the House scrambled back to Washington to vote on a stopgap measure known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund parts of the federal government and avert a partial shutdown.
That’s all likely to change today as the Senate meets for business at 10 am ET to debate the reauthorization of domestic intelligence programs (known as FISA, for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) and finish work on $60.4 billion emergency spending measure to cover the cost of Hurricane Sandy.
What’s notably absent from the docket is any potential package to stop the U.S. from hurtling over the fiscal cliff in just a matter of days.
Instead, the Senate will wrestle the Sandy spending bill. And what’s almost equally noteworthy as the absence of an effort to sidestep the fiscal cliff is the lack of a House bill to also address the hurricane.
The House has not yet crafted a bill. Appropriations Committee aides said last week they were still waiting for federal agencies to answer questions about the emergency spending request. Moreover, the House appears unable to have the wherewithal to approve any emergency spending bill for Sandy. For starters, there’s not a lot of support in the House to pass much of anything these days. Go talk to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) about last Thursday night. Secondly, conservatives think the $60.4 billion price tag is way too high. Third, many of those same conservatives demand offsets. In other words, this measure for Sandy is what’s called a “supplemental.” It is “in addition to” the 12 annual appropriations bills which fund the federal government. Many conservatives don’t think Congress trimmed enough spending. So imagine how they feel about being asked to consider a 13th spending bill on top of the typical 12? They don’t want to deny those in New Jersey, New York and other locales aid. But if the government is going to cough up $60.4 billion for the storm, they argue it should be met with a requisite, dollar-for-dollar spending cut elsewhere in government – so as not to dip the taxpayer deeper into red ink.
This debate unfolds just as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner wrote a letter to top Congressional leaders that the U.S. was about to (again) exceed its credit limit and needs to increase in the debt ceiling after December 31. Ironically though, Geithner noted that barreling off the fiscal cliff actually helps with the bookkeeping. Because the sequester compels the government to slash spending – coupled with increased revenue due to higher taxes, the Treasury has an extra $200 billion to work with for a couple of months.
How’s that for a silver lining?
But back to the Sandy spending bill.
Keep in mind that the 112th Congress must end on or before January 3rd. Then a new Congress takes over with new membership. Whatever the Senate does on the Sandy bill doesn’t automatically carry over into the new Congress. Lawmakers must start again in January if they want to send aid to the storm victims.
Just before Christmas, the Senate hop scotched over a major procedural hurdle, cutting off debate 91-1.
“Some just didn’t want to provide the aid that was necessary. But we worked hard with our Republican colleagues,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “At times when the bill seemed it would fall to a filibuster, we had to beat back argument after argument.”
This measure faced a mountain of opposition, The Club for Growth urged lawmakers to vote no on the bill.
“When a natural disaster occurs, there is a textbook response by Congress. They cobble together an overpriced bill that isn’t paid for. There’s no accountability or oversight and it’s filled with pork,” the Club wrote.
Heritage Action suggested that money tucked into this bill won’t be spent for nearly two years. Heritage Action said the measure “vividly illustrates the problems with the federal government’s and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) current approach to natural disasters.”
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) sifted through the bill and excavated a variety of expenditures which they characterized as “wasteful.” Among them were $2 million to fix roofs at Smithsonian museums along the national mall, $336 million for AMTRAK, $50 million for tree planting, and $5.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers – more than the Corps’ annual budget.
Congressional aides sorted through other stray items tucked into the measure.
For instance, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice asked for millions of dollars to replace vehicles and equipment damaged in the storm. The legislation designated $125 million to repair Colorado’s watersheds ravaged in last year’s wildfires. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) trumpeted the fact that the bill included $150 million for the fishery disasters in his home state and elsewhere. Begich also applauded money to clean up debris that washed ashore on U.S. beaches after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last year.
Provisions like these and the sheer size of the legislation drove some senators up the wall.
“This is an awful big bite to swallow,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ). “They’re asking for $60 billion…that’s too much.”
“I think in this budgetary environment we ought to do everything we can to offset,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD).
Budget hawks did score one touchdown last week. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) raised a point of order because the legislation spends more money than is allowed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That’s the piece of legislation that raised the debt limit, created the supercommittee that failed and spawned the sequester.
As a result, Toomey was able to require offsets on some spending projects in future years.
“You have to start somewhere,” said Toomey. “I think this held it up a little…I’m pleased with the way it turned out.”
And the bill is far from done in the Senate. Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced a more svelte version of the legislation which would strike all non-Sandy relief provisions. Coats’s package cleaves the cost to just $24 billion and could be considered as an amendment.
But Sandy aid advocates believe that’s way too small.
“Our delegation believes $60 billion is a fair starting point,” said Schumer, who pushed for $80-90 billion to cover the storm. “We have many more homes than Katrina. You don’t just rebuild the same way it was before.”
Still, the future of the bill is stark considering that the House may never touch this legislation if it doesn’t return before January 3rd.
“These are emergencies,” bellowed Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) about the need to move with haste on the bill.
Leahy also took aim at those who demanded offsets in exchange for approving the Sandy bill.
“I guess we eliminate every single program except the Pentagon,” said Leahy. “Come on. Is that what this country is about?”
In its official position on the bill, the Obama Administration declared it “strongly supports Senate passage” of the plan and said this version of the bill “ensures urgent and essential needs.”
But with a caveat.
“The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to refine the legislation,” said the White House’s Statement of Administration Policy.
So the Senate may be able to finish this emergency spending bill for Sandy in the next couple of days. But it’s going nowhere any time soon in the House.
And if the House can’t deal with the fiscal cliff first, it’s doubtful the Sandy relief bill ever gets a hearing at all.