Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | June 21, 2017

Cabinet Officials Defend Administration Budget Requests; Work Begins on Fiscal Year 2018 Spending Bills; Treasury Secretary Adjusts Debt Ceiling Timeline

Cabinet officials who visited Capitol Hill recently to defend the Trump Administration’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request encountered bipartisan concerns about proposed funding cuts for science agencies. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, MD, National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, PhD, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue all faced questions in appearances before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. The tone of the inquiries suggested that the president’s proposed budget has little chance of being approved by Congress.

At a Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Secretary Price on June 15, Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) made it clear he does not intend to write a bill that reduces funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also reminded the secretary that, “[this] subcommittee spent the last two years making NIH a priority, and we provided back-to-back funding increases. So the committee’s certainly not opposed to setting priorities, but we just want to be sure those priorities make sense.” Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the LHHS subcommittee ranking member, and full Appropriations Committee top Democrat Patrick Leahy (VT) also criticized the proposed cut to NIH in their opening statements, as did Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). During the question and answer period, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) engaged in a lengthy exchange with Secretary Price about the impact of the NIH reductions, noting the agency would fund 2,000 fewer competitive research grants under the Trump budget proposal. Price disputed this number.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Appropriations Committee began consideration of the FY 2018 spending measures by advancing the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations Bill through subcommittee and full committee. The bill provides $698.2 million (a $22.5 million or 3.3 percent increase) for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research Program. Despite the progress on that bill, the path forward for the remaining11 bills is unclear. House leaders have not produced a budget resolution that will give appropriators an indication of what number to use as the topline spending level. The FY 2018 Budget Control Act cap for defense and non-defense discretionary spending is approximately $5 billion less than current funding. In the absence of a new deal to adjust the FY 2018 caps, appropriations bills that exceed those amounts would be subjected to across-the-board cuts in order to comply with the law.

Cognizant of the dilemma facing appropriators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that he is willing to negotiate a bipartisan agreement to adjust the FY 2018 spending levels. Speaking at a press briefing on June 20, McConnell said, “We’re going to have to, hopefully sooner rather than later, agree with our Democratic colleagues on what the topline is, what we’re going to spend on the discretionary accounts this year.” The majority leader added, “They’ll be a part of that, because that’s not something we can do Republicans only.” Senate Appropriations Committee consideration of the 2018 bills is likely to take place after the Independence Day recess.

Bipartisan support for efforts to raise the FY 2018 budget cap was also on display at another hearing last week. Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he now expects the government to be able to continuing using “extraordinary measures” through September to avoid breaching the debt ceiling. However, he reiterated his preference that the debt limit be raised before legislators adjourn for their summer break in early August. Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA) echoed Mnuchin’s comments, recommending that Congress immediately reach a deal to raise both the budget caps and the debt ceiling. Mr. Mnuchin added that he believes there is “a lot of bipartisan support” for that strategy. Representative David Price (D-NC) also endorsed this idea.

Linking the debt ceiling increase and the budget caps is a strategy that may also win support from the White House, according to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney. The OMB Director told reporters that the administration will be flexible on the debt ceiling and indicated that the White House is open to a new deal that raises the budget caps. Mulvaney said that President Trump’s main goal is to increase defense spending and that he’ll also support a plan to raise domestic spending if it helps achieve that goal. The White House would like to see Congress pass an FY 2018 omnibus appropriations bill before August rather than delaying action on the president’s spending priorities into next year, he added.