Appropriations Work Stalls in Senate as THUD Bill Nears Final Vote

Last week it appeared that the Senate was on a fast track to pass several appropriations bills prior to the extended August recess that begins on July 15.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) planned an aggressive schedule of floor votes on spending bills, including the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill that funds many programs critical to planners. However, the path forward is now unclear.

On April 27, McConnell attempted to file a motion to limit debate and move to a final vote on their FY 2017 Energy and Water spending bill, the first FY 2017 appropriations bill the Senate has brought to the floor. Unfortunately, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) filed an amendment to the spending bill on the Iran nuclear deal, causing Democrats to withdraw their support for the motion to limit debate, which was necessary to reach the 60 vote threshold required to pass the motion.

McConnell the next day attempted another cloture vote, but without any changes to the amendment or new negotiations with Democrats, the vote failed again. McConnell immediately filed cloture on the bill for a third time and vowed to hold another vote when the Senate returns from a week-long recess on May 9.

It isn’t clear how the Senate will move forward on appropriations from this point.

Tensions rans high on the Senate floor, with senators blaming each other for the failure of the bill. Republicans claimed that Democrats are intentionally obstructing the process, while Democrats claimed that the addition of a “poison pill” amendment showed that Republicans aren’t serious about working with them and that the President would have vetoed the bill anyway. Even if Sen. Cotton agrees to withdraw his amendment, the significant trouble early in the appopriations process is not a good sign, especially in an election year when senators are weary of controversial votes.

The failure of the Energy and Water bill is particularly unfortunate because McConnell had filed cloture on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill on Wednesday and was ready to move it to the floor after Energy and Water. 

The Senate THUD bill was approved unanimously through both subcommittee and committee in April. Senators on both sides of the aisle commended appropriators for writing a fair bill while facing tough financial realities. 

The spending limit set for the THUD bill could have been disastrous for programs important to planners; the funding level for FY 2017 is $56.5 billion, which is an $800 million cut from current spending levels. Combined with increases to the cost of providing rental assistance and a predicted downturn in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) revenues that are added to the THUD budget, the practical impact of the cut to the bill appeared to be as high as $1.2 billion.

Despite these concerns, appropriators made very few reductions to programs within the THUD bill, the only exception being a $45 million cut to Choice Neighborhoods. FHA receipts ended up being more robust than initial estimates and the subcommittee was able to recapture unobligated funding from prior fiscal years, saving most programs from drastic cuts.

In all, the bill represents a huge win for transportation, housing, and community development programs upon which planners rely. The bill provides:

  • CDBG: $3 billion, level funding
  • HOME: $950 million, level funding
  • Choice Neighborhoods: $80 million, a $45 million cut from FY 2016 and includes language requiring communities applying for implementation grants be past awardees of Choice Neighborhood planning grants
  • TIGER: $525 million, a $25 million increase
  • New Starts: $2.3 billion, a $161 million increase and is consistent with levels authorized by the FAST Act
  • Formula Grants: $9.7 billion, a $753 million increase and is consistent with the FAST Act
  • Rental assistance: maintains funding for all currently receiving rental housing assistance
  • Public Housing Captial Fund: increases spending by $25 million to improve conditions in public housing with lead

Despite the ongoing struggle to pass a budget resolution, House appropriators have gotten to work, approving three bills through committee. Given their inability to pass a budget resolution, it’s unclear whether appropriations bills can be passed on the House floor, especially since they have been written using the overall spending level opposed by House Freedom Caucus members.   

At this point, a continuing resolution is a foregone conclusion. It seems probable that House and Senate appropriators will continue to approve bills through committee, which will then be used as the basis for negotiations on an omnibus spending package either after the election or after a new Congress takes office. However, odd things can happen in an election year and it’s possible the landscape could radically change again, as it did this week.

About the Author

Tess Hembree is policy manager at Advocacy Associates.

May 3, 2016

By Tess Hembree