Senate leaders and appropriators are carefully considering a proposal to combine the remaining nine unpassed Senate appropriations bills into one large “maxi-bus” to be brought to the floor to avoid a government shutdown or long-term stopgap measure.
There are only a few legislative days left until the Thanksgiving recess and only three full weeks in December before the Christmas break to get all the Senate spending bills passed and reach a deal with the House.
If lawmakers don’t get their work done, they face the prospect of a government shutdown or the passage of an extended stopgap measure that keeps government funding frozen — or possibly cuts current levels — until next year.
The Senate last week passed a minibus appropriations package that combined three of the annual spending bills funding military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.
But it took senators nearly seven weeks to consider that package on the Senate floor, even though the bills it included passed out of the Appropriations Committee with unanimous support.
As a result, senators are running out of time. Combining the remaining nine appropriations bills into a massive package and bringing it to the floor would give them a chance to make up for lost time.
“Instead of a minibus, it’s a maxi-bus. I’m in favor of it. I think it’s the right thing to do,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said.
Senate veterans cannot remember ever bringing such a large spending package to the floor straight from the Appropriations Committee.
When omnibus spending packages have moved in the Senate in past years, they have done so after Senate and House appropriators had a chance to at least exchange conference notes, according to one Senate appropriations veteran.
Passing a maxi-bus sometime after Thanksgiving, however, would give the Senate more leverage in year-end spending talks with the House as the package would pass the upper chamber with a large bipartisan majority.
“We’re looking at all the options right now,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the Republican vice chair of the Appropriations panel, said her preference is to stick with the initial plan of passing the 12 annual spending bills through the Senate in four minibus packages. But she acknowledged that dwindling number of legislative days left in 2023 is a significant problem.
“That has been discussed,” she said of the maxi-bus plan. “I think it would be better to keep proceeding with minibuses but we could have gone on to one last week and we didn’t.
“At least if there is a decision made by the leaders to put all nine of the remaining bills together, at least they’re bills that have gone through committee, [have] been vetted, will be subject to amendment, are not drafted by just a few people behind closed doors,” she said.
The idea would be controversial with Senate conservatives who would likely balk at the overall size of such a package, which would exceed $1 trillion — and who have called for spending bills to be taken up individually.
Senate and House Republicans have vowed since the end of last year not to approve another massive omnibus spending package. Many conservatives were outraged by the $1.7 trillion omnibus that Congress passed in December.
Senate conservatives want to back new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who is floating the idea of passing a stopgap measure to fund the government until Jan. 15 or possibly as late as mid-April.
Johnson is also looking at a “laddered” continuing resolution that would set different funding expiration dates for various federal departments and agencies, which would have the effect of separating the funding expiration date of the Pentagon, for example, from those of other departments.
A spending package with laddered expiration dates is also extremely rare.
One congressional spending expert consulted on the topic said the last time a spending package was passed with different funding expiration dates was way back in 1991, when the annual State, Foreign Operations appropriations bill had a different expiration date than other appropriations bills due to an issue related to new settlements in Israel’s West Bank.
Members of the Appropriations Committee stress that the bills have already been passed through their committee, so they would not be thrust upon their Senate colleagues at the last moment. They also argue that their colleagues will be able to offer amendments and have a chance of getting their own proposals enacted into law.
“There are couple of reasons why they shouldn’t freak out. The bills have been publicly published and have gone through the committee, bipartisan, since June or July, depending on the bill,” said one member of the Appropriations Committee, who also noted that a maxi-bus would give colleagues a chance to propose amendments affecting a vast swath of the federal government all at once.
But the source acknowledged there could be political drawbacks.
“The counter is: huge, big bill that’s hiding lots of details because of its sheer size,” the lawmaker said.
An aide to a conservative Senate Republican said that conservatives might agree to let the bill come to the floor without throwing up too many procedural hurdles if they are promised the chance to debate it at length and offer amendments.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said no final decision has made on how to proceed.
“There’s lots of different ideas now about how we’re going to transact this endgame,” he said.
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