Senators approved a massive $850 billion spending package Thursday and worked simultaneously to broker a deal to clear a large batch of presidential nominees, an effort to finish their work and salvage the last week of August for a truncated recess.
While many senators are anxious to spend at least part of their August away from the Capitol, it was uncertain if leaders could clear several stubborn hurdles needed to finish their work and leave, or if they would need to return Monday and possibly work straight through Labor Day without a break.
As they began late afternoon votes on the spending bill, aides and senators were pessimistic a deal on the nomination was near.
“See you guys Monday,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called out to other senators after he voted on the spending bill, a clear sign a deal was unlikely before next week.
Each side believes the other has an incentive to cut a deal and go. Democrats are convinced Republicans want to escape the endless questions from Capitol reporters about the swirling legal and political controversies involving President Donald Trump. Republicans, meanwhile, are sure vulnerable red-state Democrats up for re-election in November are desperate to get home to campaign.
“We reconvened this month because too much of the American people’s business remained outstanding,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said explaining why, under pressure from conservatives, he canceled the August recess, which typically lasts up to five weeks.
But he said he would not release the Senate until the 17 nominations, which include 12 judges, were approved.
“The Senate will continue to work right through August until every one of them is confirmed,” McConnell warned.
The list of nominees includes two senior government officials that some Democrats are reluctant to quickly clear. They are Richard Clarida, to be vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and Joseph Hunt, to lead the civil rights division at the Department of Justice.
While McConnell has the power to keep the Senate in session, a negotiated solution would be cleaner and allow Republicans to claim victories for passing the spending bill and for forcing through the confirmations of so many of Trump’s nominees.
It would also allow senators to take what they see as a much-needed break before the fall sprint to the mid-terms, which includes a hotly contested confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Progress on spending
On an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, the Senate voted 85 to 7 to pass a package of bills to fund the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.
Bipartisan leaders this year made it a priority to pass government spending bills on time and avoid the constant and disruptive threats of government shutdowns that have marked recent spending debates. With that in mind, they decided to tie these two bills together in hopes that Republicans, who traditionally advocate for more defense spending, and Democrats, who typically press for more spending for domestic programs, would work together to keep co-called “poison pill” amendments and other controversial proposals off the bill.
They went to great lengths to preserve their arrangement. At one point Wednesday, 78-year-old Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy from Vermont, literally ran to the Senate floor from the Capitol basement when he heard Republican Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky might be trying to strip Planned Parenthood funding from the bill, something opposed by many Democrats.
In the end, Paul’s effort didn’t work, and he delivered a floor speech Thursday blaming GOP leaders – not Democrats or Leahy – for not working hard enough to pass his amendments.
On the Democratic side, a move by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut to prevent the Trump administration from using funds in the bill to arm school teachers, which many Republicans wouldn’t support, was also kept at bay.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt from Missouri, a manager of the bill, called passage of the DOD and HHS bills a “pretty significant accomplishment” and said lawmakers would use the month of September to finish other spending bills and merge competing House and Senate funding bills and send them to the President before the new fiscal year begins October 1.