WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee leaders are pressing for a full chamber vote next week on a mini-omnibus appropriations bill to keep the government open beyond March 27, including a full 2013 Pentagon spending bill.
Additionally, Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told reporters Thursday she will propose something called “enhanced transfer reprogramming authority,” aiming to give all federal agency officials the flexibility to move monies among pots of money to blunt the effects of the sequestration cuts.
The House on Wednesday passed its version of a continuing resolution (CR), a $982 billion measure that includes a full $518.1 billion Pentagon 2013 appropriations bill. The House measure also has attached full-year military construction and Department of Veterans Affairs funding bills.
A senior Senate Appropriations Committee aide said the Pentagon bill included in the Senate omnibus “is identical” to the one attached to the House’s CR.
Sources told Defense News earlier this month that late last year staff from the House and Senate Appropriations committees had met to cobble together a compromise version of a 2013 defense appropriations legislation. The DoD spending bill passed by the House and being proposed in the SAC-crafted legislation largely is a product of those efforts.
“We think the [House] bill is too limited,” Mikulski said. “We want to add to the bill those programs that are relatively free of controversy, that were already marked up by the full Appropriations Committee of the Senate, and that were pre-conferenced” with the House appropriators.
Mikulski received the blessing of the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, to propose a mini-omnibus. The approach also has the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Mikulski said.
The Senate’s CR will be the same defense, military construction and veterans affairs bills that are included in the House-passed bill. The Senate bill also will include full-year appropriations bills for three other agencies, with all remaining agency funding being part of the actual continuing resolution that keeps funding frozen at past levels.
“This deal does not take care of the sequester,” Mikulski said. “So whatever we pass will be subject to the sequester,” said added, referring to the twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending triggered last Friday.
To ease the pain of those cuts, Mikulski said she “invented” the enhanced transfer authority only on Wednesday.
The Senate last week shot down a GOP-offered bill that would have given Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other Pentagon officials the ability to shift funds within the DoD budget as they dealt with sequestration.
“I really do want not only Hagel to have this flexibility,” but also other federal agency heads, Mikulski said, adding the idea is still a “concept.”
Under the not-yet-finalized “concept,” as she called it, federal agencies would still have to garner the approval of the respective subcommittee chairmen and ranking members before they would be allowed to shift monies among pots of money, Mikulski and the senior aide said.
She said her plan is preferable to the nixed GOP idea of giving the Pentagon flexibility to enact the sequester cuts itself because she believes it is more constitutional.
“Congress has the power of the purse,” Mikulski told reporters huddled inside the lobby of the Appropriations Committee’s Capitol office suite. “They have to come back to Congress, and the Appropriations committees with reprogramming requests.”
Speaking to reporters a few hours earlier, before she presented her CR plan for the Senate Democratic caucus, Mikulski said her measure will contain “no poison pill riders [and] no cute little gimmicks.”
Either of those could cause House Republicans, who see deficit reduction via more spending cuts as their top priority, to reject the Senate’s legislation.
Several of those fiscally conservative House Republicans this week said if the Senate sends back the very kind of mini-omnibus appropriations bill Mikulski and Shelby are finalizing, they would at least take a look at and consider supporting it.
But those GOP members made clear the bill must abide by spending caps first set in 2011 and meet all requirements of the defense and domestic sequester cuts that were triggered last Friday.
The Senate Appropriations chairwoman told reporters her bill will do just that.
Mikulski said Shelby has been working closely with her to put together the mini-omnibus, which she described as a bipartisan measure.
If too many House Republicans reject the Senate bill, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opts against allowing Democratic support to carry it to approval later this month, the government likely would shut down. The current CR expires March 27.
The Senate could vote on the bill next week, with Mikulski saying she would like a floor vote as soon as Thursday, giving the House several days to pass or reject it. She said her ideal scenario is to send President Barack Obama a final version that looks like the Senate bill by March 18.
All week on Capitol Hill, GOP senators have declined to stake out support for or opposition to the Mikulski-Shelby legislation, saying they want to review it first.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said Tuesday GOP leaders have yet to decide whether they will require 60 votes to end debate on the measure.
Some, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., want 72 hours before its introduction and any floor vote.