The Obamacare-fueled fireworks, poison pills and government shutdown threats that have become commonplace in the funding fights of the Obama era may be nowhere to be found this year, if a ho-hum subcommittee vote on a normally contentious appropriations bill is a sign of where things are headed.
The bill, the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill, is usually the site of a variety of partisan flash points, Obamacare funding not the least of them. It provides funding for Health and Human Services as well as the Labor Department, and thus, in the past, has provided an opportunity for Republicans to take swipes at some of the Obama initiatives they hate the most. The funding legislation for FY 2017 that passed out of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday was the first Labor-HHS appropriations bill in seven years to be cobbled together in a bipartisan fashion, without any new policy riders.
“This isn’t the bill I would have written on my own, and I know it’s not the bill you would have written on your own,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said at the hearing Tuesday, referring to its chair, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).
She praised it as a “bipartisan compromise” that “doesn’t include any new policy riders that would have poisoned the bill and made it partisan.”
Blunt’s office cast the bill’s easy passage as part of the GOP’s argument that they can govern responsibly while in charge of the the U.S. Senate.
“Senator Blunt and the Republican leadership have made it a priority to get back to regular order and get to work after the GOP takeover of Senate leadership,” Brian Hart, Blunt’s spokesman, said in an email to TPM. “Senator Blunt and Senator Murray were committed to working together on a bill and focusing on important priorities like funding for cancer and Alzheimer’s research, year-round Pell Grants, and efforts to fight opioid abuse.”
Contrast the happy, bipartisan spirit with last year’s version of legislation, passed after Republicans obtained their Senate majority, which Murray then said “disappointed” her because it would “would hurt families and communities.”
That bill dismantled funding for the HHS portions of Obamacare while proposing major cuts to other federal health programs, and would have likely drawn a veto threat from the administration. Murray said that it had “no chance of becoming law and only push us closer to another budget crisis.”
(The bill was eventually cast aside when Congress went with an omnibus to fund the government).
A senior GOP aide told Morning Consult ahead of Tuesday’s vote that, “We will fund all of the things we need to fund to try to keep it bipartisan,” even if it attracts the heat of hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who led a government shutdown over Obamacare funding in 2013.
“There is no placating Ted Cruz. So why bother trying?” the aide told Morning Consult. “He’s like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. He expects us to believe in six impossible things before breakfast.”
Hart, Blunt’s spokesman, pointed out in his statement that the bill includes no new ACA funding, that that most of Obamacare’s funding is mandatory, and that it comes from outside of this appropriations bill. He added that this year’s legislation is still blocking funding for the Risk Corridors Program, which was first attacked by Republicans in 2014, while defunding the ACA’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, the controversial panel to manage Medicare spending that hasn’t been set up yet.
It’s not just Obamacare that dodged the usual poison pill-bullet this year. The Labor-HHS bill also maintains funding for the women’s health and family planning programs that have been in Republican crosshairs, particularly after a series of heavily edited “sting” videos accused Planned Parenthood of profiting off of fetal tissue donations.
But Tuesday’s vote was just the first of the hurdles the bill had to pass. It will have to go through a full committee vote Thursday, and eventually to the floor, where Hart said, “amendments can and probably will be offered to the bill along the way.”
With a long way still to go through the broader appropriations process, there’s also a chance that final spending decisions for this and other programs will be hashed out in an end-of-the-year omnibus bill, in which case, legislation like this plays the role of an opening bargaining chip.
“This bill is an important step forward in the process, but it’s not the last step,” Murray said in her remarks Tuesday.