All signs point to that game-playing from Republicans, because Congress already reached agreement on the defense spending side of the equation. President Biden signed the $778 billion defense authorization bill in December—that should have set the budget for the Pentagon, the number appropriators have to work with to determine how that $778 billion will be allocated within the Pentagon’s programs. So that really shouldn’t be up for debate right now, but Republicans are being Republicans.
That’s creating potential crises all over the place. The Pentagon is looking at the escalating Ukraine crisis as Russia masses troops at the border, and an inability to adapt to changing threats because it’s stuck under the constraints of the last budget. That’s an advantage Democrats are pushing. “We have to get a deal,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday. “The most important thing is the oath we take to protect and defend.”
Then there’s the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As of right now, the administration has enough funding for “current, immediate needs,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters last week. However, he said, “we are looking at a future where we will likely need funding for treatments and pills; we’ll need funding to continue to expand testing and to continue to lead the effort, as we’ve done with 1.2 billion doses donated to the world, but to continue to lead that effort to vaccinate the world.”
One group of House and Senate Democrats is urging the administration and Congress to try to stay ahead of the pandemic, pushing for $17 billion in supplemental funding to be added to the omnibus for global vaccinations. “USAID—the primary U.S. agency leading global vaccination efforts and the global COVID-19 response—is a little over a month away from running out of money,” they wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to President Biden and the House and Senate appropriations chairs.
Yet another problem raised by Pelosi last week comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), that big infrastructure bill they passed last year that everyone—even Republicans who voted against it—has been crowing about.
“One connection between infrastructure and the omnibus is that some of the money in the infrastructure bill cannot be freed up until we pass the omnibus bill,” Pelosi told reporters last week. Democratic Rep. David Price from North Carolina, the chair of the House Transportation-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, told E&E News: “It’s a big problem for all of us.”
He explained that various infrastructure projects are funded from multiple and various budget accounts, some of which can be spent immediately and some of which have to be specifically appropriated. One example is the Federal Highway Administration, which has $52.5 billion for highway projects for the 2022 fiscal year under the new law, but right now is only authorized to spend less than $20 billion because it’s constrained by the continuing resolution. Another program, the Highway Trust Fund, is on hold despite the fact that billions were included for it in the IIJA.
“I hope the Republican minority understands that jobs are being held up because of their intransigence,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat and chair of the House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee, told E&E. The problem is going to get a lot worse this spring and summer, she pointed out, when the states that have a short window for doing infrastructure work because of weather will be clamoring for the funds.
There are a few other things Congress is working on this week. The House could pass a U.S. Postal Service overhaul bill by Wednesday. The legislation eliminates the requirement that the Postal Service prepay future retiree health benefits for its workers, a requirement created by Congress in 2006 that has bankrupted the agency. No other public entity has that requirement. The legislation would also require postal delivery six days per week, and would allow the Postal Service to provide nonpostal services—like banking—as part of an agreement with state and local governments.
The Senate will keep grinding through judicial and executive branch nominations. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are also working on the potential budget agreement. Senators are also continuing work on a Russia sanctions bill.