House keeps shoulder to wheel on appropriations bills — Senate stalls

Continuing resolution to maintain funding is likely at end of summer.

This week Congress returned to Washington after the Independence Day recess to face a lot of unfinished business. The fiscal year 2015 appropriations bills, a request for emergency funding to respond to the surge of women and children immigrants crossing the border in Texas and Arizona, and a shortfall in the highway construction budget are among the issues on the agenda that lawmakers hope to check off before Congress leaves town again in August.

The House has made progress within the appropriations process, passing all but the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) bill (which funds the National Institutes of Health) and the Department of Interior bill through the full Appropriations Committee. The Labor-HHS bill is frequently one of the most controversial, and congressional staff reminded us this week that it's been five years since there was a House Appropriations Committee markup of that bill. The consequences of that failure are that there are fewer opportunities for public input or for the minority Democrats on the subcommittee to protest funding levels or policy changes inserted by the majority. House Appropriations Chair Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has said that the Labor-HHS bill will be considered by the end of July, but did not specify a date. Five of the 12 spending measures have been approved by the full House over the spring and summer, and H.R. 4923, the Energy and Water bill, is currently being debated by the full House.

The appropriations process in the Senate has been stalled because of Democratic-Republican differences over the number and types of amendments that will be allowed during floor debate. Full Senate Appropriations Committee consideration of two bills, the Energy and Water and the Labor-HHS bills, had been tentatively scheduled for this week, but pulled by Chair Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. The parties remain divided on how to proceed with floor debate of the “minibus” legislation that contains the Commerce, Justice, Science, Agriculture and Transportation-Housing bills.

This is all to say that it seems unlikely that congressional appropriators will manage to pass all 12 bills before the 2014 fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Lawmakers are expected to pass a short term continuing resolution, or CR, after Labor Day to keep federal agencies operating beyond Oct. 1. The length of the CR has not been determined yet but many expect that it will fund the government through at least late November. Appropriators are also trying to work out how to respond to President Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency supplemental funding to offset costs of caring for, evaluating and resettling or deporting the 52,000 unaccompanied minors who have reached the U.S. southern border so far this year. Topics of disagreement include: Should the supplemental funding be offset by spending cuts elsewhere? And should Congress demand reforms before providing additional funds?

So what, you may ask, does all this have to do with science funding? Because of the budget caps adopted in the Budget Control Act, to which Congress has tied spending through the year 2020, all congressional money debates are essentially science funding debates. If Congress agrees that the emergency funds for unaccompanied minors are not subject to budget caps, that leaves more room for science funding. $1.8 billion of the $3.7 billion request would to go to the Department of HHS. If Congress were to decide it must come out of the allocation for the Labor-HHS bill, that would almost certainly impact funding for NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So stick with us here at the Federal Budget Blog, and we'll keep you informed about developments that may affect science funding.