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Why No Movement in the Senate?

July 18, 2020

Q: If the bills are drafted, what is stopping the Senate from moving forward?

A: Several times this year I have written about the “hurry up, then slow down” pacing of the appropriations process over the last decade. No one becomes an appropriator unless they believe that completion of the process each year is important. Leadership has a similar interest: completed funding bills are widely interpreted as a sign of a productive Congress.

All that forward motion eventually comes up against the nearly immovable resistance caused by Congressional gridlock. Appropriations bills can’t move in the Senate right now because, among other things, Senator Shelby is arguing that Democrats are breaking an agreement that only mutually agreed-upon amendments would be considered. Senator Leahy says that the agreement only covered the prior year when it was negotiated. It sounds like a petty “he said, she said” spat.

In fact, the current deadlock does not rest on trivial issues or stubborn personalities. If Senator Shelby schedules a mark-up, his colleagues — five of whom are up for re-election — will face a succession of Democratic amendments designed to put them on the record in a way that could hurt their campaigns.

Q: Could the Senate deadlock break and what happens if it doesn’t?

A: Nothing prevents a Shelby/Leahy agreement. It might take the form of something like: Democrats can offer these three amendments, but can’t offer these other seven. If that occurs at all, it seems more likely to be in September than now. First, emergency supplementals are appropriations bills, so appropriators will have their hands full over the next 3 weeks. Even if there was time, attention span and good will sufficient to release bills and hold mark-ups, it is hard to see the benefit to election-year Republicans of giving an extra month of exposure to their positions.

Actually, the situation is even a bit worse than that for those (like us) who favor completion of the appropriations process before October 1. Senate floor votes on appropriations are not likely to happen before November. Otherwise, the 20 incumbent Republican Senators running for re-election would face difficult votes on Democratic amendments. Even after the election, the Senate is likely to conference their committee-passed bills with the House-passed bills. This is not uncommon but bound to have difficulties, particularly were to occur ahead of the election.

The most likely — but not certain — scenario is: (1) the emergency supplemental bill occupies the next 3 weeks, (2) Senate Republicans move slowly, if at all, in September and pass a CR early (maybe September 18 to send their troops home to campaign), and (3) the CR would run until after the election. Whether there will be agreements on funding in November/December or another CR into 2021 will depend on what happens in the election.

As a general matter, the flat funding that comes with a continuing resolution is particularly bad for agencies, such as FDA, whose missions and responsibilities are growing. Their ability to increase their efforts is likely to be thwarted as long as the CR is in place.

Editorial note: The Analysis and Commentary section is written by Steven Grossman, Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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