How the Senate Got Its Groove Back With the Power of the Purse

Senator Mitch McConnell said it had been 15 years since the Senate had passed the labor, health and education spending bill it was now considering, a sweeping measure that often includes contentious abortion provisions.

WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of rising partisan rancor over the Supreme Court vacancy, an unlikely bipartisan breakthrough is quietly taking place in the Senate, where the annual spending bills are advancing in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.

While they are at one another’s throats over the nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the court, top Senate Democrats and Republicans are working hand in hand to pass a series of consensus spending bills in the old-school fashion of putting them on the floor, allowing amendments to be considered and then passing the measures and sending them into future negotiations with the House.

That may sound like the way things are supposed to be done, but the polarized Senate has been unable to perform this most basic function for a considerable time. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, noted that it had been 15 years since the Senate had passed the sweeping labor, health and education spending bill it was now considering before the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“Fifteen years,” Mr. McConnell repeated for emphasis.

Success would mean that Congress could gain the upper hand over the Trump White House on spending issues for a third consecutive time. It could also restore some confidence among members of the Senate that the usually dysfunctional institution can still occasionally act like a true legislative body.

“Our goal is to fund the government in regular order,” said Senator Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, offering some optimism that Congress might avoid its now routine haphazard stopgap approach to funding.

The already struggling Appropriations Committee faltered even more in recent years given the health problems of its former chairman, Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Republican who retired this year. The current leaders, Mr. Shelby and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the spending panel, are two old bulls trying to return the institution to its old ways. Between them, they have nearly 80 years in the Senate.

The two have known each other for decades, and during recent congressional travels, they concluded it was essential to restore the appropriations process if there was any hope of rescuing the Senate from gridlock and legislative irrelevancy.

“We took a couple of trips together and we talked about it and just said unless we get this back, the Senate is really screwed,” Mr. Leahy said. “We have to get back to doing it the regular way.”

They met privately with Mr. McConnell and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and all agreed to give the appropriations process a chance on the floor. It was in their shared interest to do so. The truth is that most lawmakers from both parties like to spend money, and that annual resolutions that simply continue existing funding levels deprive them of the ability to influence where the money goes.

For Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrats, it allows them to claim big increases in spending on social programs, health research and education initiatives. Republicans can celebrate a big boost in Pentagon spending and a military pay raise. Both sides want a surge of pre-election spending to combat opioid abuse. Passing the bills allows Mr. McConnell to declare that the Senate can be productive under his guidance, while also providing embattled Democrats in red states a chance to secure some victories. Everybody wins.

“This is a rare moment when it may be in the interest of both parties to get something done, and it shows,” said Mr. Schumer, who called the appropriations harmony the “mirror image” of the court fight.

By banding together, lawmakers can also fend off complaints from the administration that they are overspending by exceeding the White House requests in many areas under a two-year budget agreement struck in early February.

The key element was a leadership deal to fight off killer “poison pill” amendments that have scuttled appropriations bills in recent years. Senate leaders have a deep aversion to forcing politically vulnerable members of their party to take difficult votes. The result has been that the spending bills were essentially drafted in leadership suites at the last minute, drawing complaints from the majority of members who were cut out of the deliberations.

“We need cooperation from both sides to process amendments while resisting the temptation to turn the appropriations process into a free-for-all on all manner of policy issues,” Mr. McConnell said last week. “But this year, that’s exactly what we are doing.”

The Senate has already passed seven of the 12 annual spending bills and faces a major test this week with two more. The health and labor measure has always been a magnet for polarizing votes on abortion and is likely to be the same this year, leaving the leadership challenged to move the measure forward. If the Senate can pass that bill and an attached Pentagon measure, it will have, by Mr. McConnell’s account, tentatively approved funding for 87 percent of the government — a real achievement for the Senate these days.

Notably left out of the collection of measures being considered by the Senate is the bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security, which would contain money for President Trump’s border wall. Spending levels are sure to be a sticking point in talks with both the House and the White House. The House has already called for $5 billion for the wall, while the Senate has moved to allocate $1.6 billion — the amount, senators note, sought by the White House.

Negotiations with the House will be difficult, and Senate Democrats are nervous that Republicans could cave under White House pressure rather than risk the president’s Twitter ire so close to the election. But while Mr. Trump has repeatedly threatened a government shutdown if he does not get his wall funding, both parties appear eager to make certain that a shutdown does not happen so close to the balloting.

“Both sides, Democrats and Republicans, realize that shutting down the government, the specter of shutting down the government, actually shutting down the government, is not in anyone’s political interests,” Mr. Shelby said.

In some respects, senators should thank Mr. Trump for encouraging this return to regular order when he vowed in March that he would never again sign a huge, omnibus measure that packaged all the spending bills together and was then sprung on him as a deadline loomed. That spurred the parties to work together to avoid a repeat of that situation.

Now Mr. Trump might again find himself having to sign bipartisan spending measures that exceed his spending limits. And this time Congress will have done it the old-fashioned way.

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