Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, took to the Senate floor this week calling on House-Senate budget negotiators to look at replacing the across-the-board sequestration cuts for at least two years.
“My goals for the conference committee that’s meeting are simple and straightforward,” Mikulski said Nov. 5. “I would like to see the budget committee come up with not only a one-year framework but a two-year framework, giving a top- line funding level for 2014 and 2015 and replacing the sequester policy for at least two years.”
The House-Senate budget conference committee is currently working to reconcile two competing budget plans for fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1.
The two plans remain $91 billion apart and differ widely on how to account for sequestration. Senate Democrats have called for replacing the automatic cuts, outright, in part through revenue increases. The House Republican budget assumes sequestration continues, although it shifts funding to Defense to spare it from further reductions.
The budget conference committee must report out an agreement by Dec. 13. The current stopgap continuing resolution funding agency operations expires Jan. 15, but that would leave the Appropriations Committee less than a month to come up with an omnibus spending bill adhering to the budget panel’s top-line figure.
Approps committees seek funding level by Thanksgiving
In a letter sent last week, Mikulski and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty (D-Wash.), the co-chairs of the budget conference committee, requesting the panel come up with a top-line spending figure for fiscal 2014 before Thanksgiving to give their committees enough time to allocate funding.
“We ask that you come together and decide on a common top-line as quickly as possible to allow us additional time for the Appropriations Committees to perform essential analyses, consider the views of House and Senate members, and protect the interests of the American taxpayers in our final negotiations,” Mikulski and Rogers wrote in the Oct. 31 letter.
The letter from Mikulski and Rogers requested the final top-line number no later than Dec. 2 and preferably by Nov. 22.
“This is absolutely crucial because we cannot do discretionary spending for fiscal ’14 until we hear from the Budget Committee,” Mikulski said in her floor remarks Tuesday. “And we don’t want another CR. We don’t want another shutdown.”
If the committee waits until its official deadline to report a top-line funding level, the Appropriations Committees would have only a handful of work days to write their spending bills.
Congress is only scheduled to be in session for a total of eight days between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15 because of the holidays, Mikulski said.
“We’ll do it if we have to do,” Mikulski said. “But we’d prefer sooner rather than later.”
The letter from Mikulski and Rogers also asked the budget committee to agree on a common discretionary funding level for fiscal 2015, “so that we can avoid the situation we encountered this year of having two different overall numbers guiding the House and Senate appropriations process.”
But with talk of a budget “grand bargain” quickly downplayed by budget conferees at the committee’s first public meeting last week, even a two-year deal could prove a heavy lift.
Agency flexibility seen as fallback position
In the absence of a deal on adjusting the across-the-board cuts, some members of the committee have floated the idea of giving agencies more latitude in how the cuts are applied.
“I’m an advocate for giving the administration some flexibility,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) at the budget committee’s Oct. 30 meeting. “If they need to make these spending cuts to live within the caps, let’s allow them to use the common sense that every business owner and family would use: Cut the least important things, preserve the most important things.”
Toomey cited as an example the bipartisan bill last spring that gave the Federal Aviation Administration expanded reprogramming authority, allowing the agency to forego employee furloughs and easing flight delays after the first round of sequestration cuts went into effect in March.
“That model could be applied more broadly, and we can achieve the savings in a more sensible fashion,” Toomey said.