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Senate Appropriations Process Hits a Snag, Minibus Derailed for Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jun-2014
Updated: 19-Jun-2014 11:58 PM

Optimism about completing congressional action on at least some FY2015 appropriations bills earlier than usual hit a wall today (June 19) when the Senate postponed action on a set of three appropriations bills, including those that fund NASA, NOAA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Substantive issues underlie the disagreement, but they are unrelated to the space program and are being manifested in procedural moves.

Since last week, the Senate has been debating the Motion to Proceed to consideration of H.R. 4660, the House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.   The Senate plans to replace the language passed by the House with an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” – amendment 3244 – incorporating the texts of three appropriations bills that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee – the CJS bill (which includes NASA and NOAA), the Transportation-HUD bill (which includes the FAA), and the Agriculture bill.  The combined bill is referred to as a “minibus,” a somewhat joking reference to a smaller version of an “omnibus” appropriations bill that typically groups all 12 regular appropriations bills together.

The issue is how the Senate will deal with amendments to the minibus.  The two parties have been at loggerheads for years over what amendments are allowed to be offered during floor debate and whether the amendments can be adopted by majority vote (51 of the 100 votes in the Senate) or if a 60-vote margin is required.

The current breakdown of the Senate is 53 Democrats, two Independents who usually vote with Democrats, and 45 Republicans.  An amendment sponsored by Republicans needs to attract just six Democratic votes to win under the majority rule, but 15 if the 60-vote rule is in effect.  Conversely, an amendment sponsored by Democrats can pass with support only from other Democrats under majority rule, but requires five Republicans to join them under the 60-vote rule.

Logically, that would mean Democrats would want decisions based on majority vote on the assumption they can get the vast majority of their own party members to vote in favor of Democratic amendments, while Republicans would favor a 60-vote threshold to force Democrats to find at least five Republicans to join them.   Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued for the 60-vote threshold in the past.

Today, however, he and other Republicans were insisting that amendments to the minibus be able to pass with only 51 votes while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was arguing for the 60-vote threshold.

Divining the intricacies of Senate politics is a treacherous undertaking best left to those with that expertise rather than space policy.   However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, took to the floor today to say that the real issue is that Republicans want to offer amendments that would repeal the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.  Indeed, in its Statement of Administration (SAP) policy on the bill, the White House warned against attempts to “advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable.”

The bottom line is that action on the minibus is stalled until the two parties can reach agreement on how to proceed.  A timeline for such an agreement is impossible to forecast.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the committee, have been striving to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process.  Mikulski said on the floor that she was “sad” with what happened today because it will delay funding for many critical programs and hopes that the appropriations process “does not die today.”

Meanwhile, Senators have been making statements about the bill on the Senate floor while the Motion to Proceed has been under consideration.  A NASA issue of particular interest is language inserted in the CJS bill by Shelby, who also is the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, requiring commercial crew contractors to abide by accounting practices usually required for cost-plus government contracts rather than firm fixed-price contracts.  Opponents refer to it as a “poison pill” that will add cost to the program and is particularly disadvantageous to small companies (like SpaceX) that do not have large cadres of personnel experienced in conforming to such regulations.  Advocates insist that it adds transparency and will help avoid cost overruns.

Yesterday (June 18), Shelby, a long-standing critic of the commercial crew program, defended the language on the Senate floor saying its intent was “not to up-end a fixed-price contract: rather the goal is to make certain that the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures. NASA and its contractors have a history of cost overruns and schedule delays ... [and] I believe we cannot find ourselves at the eleventh hour with an overburdened program that requires a bailout to succeed.”   For his part, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that authorizes NASA’s activities and supports commercial crew, said he wants to work with Mikulski and Shelby as the bill is conferenced with the House “to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”


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