The Cable

Inside the State Department funding bill SNAFU

The Senate was all set to consider next year’s funding bill for the State Department and foreign operations today, but ended up punting on the bill due to a dispute over Cuba policy and a failure to agree on procedure. Congress has been rushing to complete work on all the appropriations bills for fiscal year ...

The Senate was all set to consider next year’s funding bill for the State Department and foreign operations today, but ended up punting on the bill due to a dispute over Cuba policy and a failure to agree on procedure.

Congress has been rushing to complete work on all the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2012, which started almost two months ago, on Oct. 1. The Senate Democratic leadership’s strategy was to move the bills in chunks of three at a time, smaller versions of omnibus bills affectionately known as "minibuses." The State Department and foreign ops appropriations bill was part of a minibus that was supposed to be debated beginning today on the Senate floor. But now that minibus has crashed, and Senate consideration of State Department funding has been postponed indefinitely.

Here’s what happened. As The Cable reported on Monday, two senators were refusing to give unanimous consent to debate the State Department minibus, which also included the energy and water appropriations and financial services appropriations bills, because of provisions in the financial services bill that would loosen restrictions on U.S. banks doing business in Cuba.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) don’t want any restrictions loosened on doing business with Cuba. They both spoke on the floor today against the Cuba provisions, along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). But Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) spoke in favor of the Cuba provisions, which he had authored, because his state would benefit from the agricultural trade that loosening restrictions would bring.

So even though none of these senators objected to any aspect in the State Department budget, it was caught in the crossfire because it was tied up as part of the "minibus." With Rubio, Menendez, and Nelson objecting to bringing up the minibus with the Cuba language and Moran and Vitter objecting to bringing it up without the language, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) realized he couldn’t get unanimous consent for either version of the bill and pulled it from the floor.

Of course, Reid could just call for a cloture vote on whichever version of the bill he prefers, but that would require time Reid doesn’t have. With time running out on the continuing resolution (CR) that is temporarily funding the government until Nov. 18, Reid can’t afford to spend floor time on individual bills, amendments, or debate.

Requesting a cloture vote would also have opened up the bill to other amendments, unless there was an agreement to limit amendments, which there wasn’t. That is actually how the Senate is supposed to work — but hasn’t, for quite a long time.

"This is a result of a dysfunctional appropriations process," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable late on Tuesday. "If you are considering appropriations bills in regular order there wouldn’t be a problem, but regular order broke down long ago in the Senate and what we saw today was a direct result of utter disregard for regular order and sheer incompetence in running the Senate."

The Senate did actually use the regular procedure to pass the military construction and veteran appropriations bill earlier this year, so there is precedent.

What happens now? Well, the Senate definitely needs to pass a new short-term CR by Friday, which will probably be combined with a different minibus that has already passed the House, the Senate, and has emerged from a House-Senate conference. That minibus is made up of the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.

After that, the Senate will move to the defense authorization bill, a policy bill that recommends — but does not set — funding levels. The process for that bill is also a mess, because the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had to rewrite it at the last minute to cut about $20 billion to match the figure reached by Senate defense appropriators. SASC also had to change language on detainee policies to assuage the administration.

"I gave my word that we’re going to do the defense authorization bill," Reid said on the floor late on Tuesday. "It hasn’t been worked out to satisfaction of everyone, but there comes a time when we have to stop negotiating and move to the legislation, and we’re going to do that following our finishing the next minibus we have."

But the failure to pass a bill tonight could mean that State Department funding will be put off for months. The debate over the defense authorization bill could take one or two full weeks of floor time, at which point the Senate will probably have to pass another CR to fund the government past the New Year. That CR could also result in a nasty fight. Also, Congress will have to grapple with the supercommittee’s actions around that time, for instance working on legislation to undo the "trigger" that would cut $600 billion from defense if the supercommittee fails to strike a deal.

All of this means that there won’t be floor time for things like the State Department funding bill until next January, at the earliest.

"If Senate Dem leaders do want to make defense authorization a priority, that’s going to take up most of December, and then we have to deal with the supercommittee, sequestration, another CR … and we’re looking at the very serious possibility of another CR fight around Christmas. That is the most likely scenario," the GOP Senate aide said. "But then again it is the Senate, so everything could change again tomorrow."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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