When the U.S. House of Representatives joins the Senate back in Washington this week, both chambers will be racing to complete the annual government-funding process and avoid a shutdown at the end of September. Among the major sticking points are proposals offered by House Republicans that aim to restrict access to abortion and gender-affirming care.
Here’s what you need to know as Congress negotiates the 12 appropriations bills that will fund the federal government for its next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and what happens if they don’t reach consensus in time.
Who Is in Charge of Appropriations?
The Democratic and Republican lawmakers in charge of the Senate and House appropriations committees are collectively known in Congress as the “four corners” — for the first time ever, it is all women in this influential group. The Senate Appropriations Committee is chaired by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, and its top Republican is Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The House appropriations panel is chaired by Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, and the top Democrat is Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
How Does the Government Funding Process Work?
Elizabeth Leoty Craddock, a government-relations attorney at Holland and Knight who used to counsel Democratic former Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, described appropriations as a “very methodical, laid-out process.”
It starts when the president submits a budget request to Congress on the first Monday in February. This is essentially a blueprint for how the administration would like to spend the roughly quarter of the annual federal budget that is discretionary, or not mandatory. In 2023, when $6.3 trillion was allotted to fund the government, 73 percent went to mandatory spending on programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and the appropriations process therefore set spending for the remaining 27 percent of the budget, according to the conservative-Libertarian Cato Institute.
The House and Senate adopt their own budget resolutions. Next, the House and Senate committees start working on a package of 12 appropriations bills. Ideally, the appropriations committees each pass versions of the bills, which are voted on by the full chambers. Then lawmakers reconcile differences between the two. In reality, sometimes the committees don’t pass all of the bills, and the 12 bills get packaged into one massive, omnibus spending measure. Critics of omnibus bills say they are less transparent and offer less opportunity for debating specifics.
What Have the Senate and Congress Accomplished So Far?
Before the Senate left for the August recess, its Appropriations Committee approved 12 bills that fund what’s known as discretionary spending by the federal government. They fund everything from homeland security to agriculture to housing, and were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Murray and Collins have praised each other during the notably smooth process.
The Senate bills set spending levels that are in line with caps reached as part of a larger deal that Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made earlier this summer with Democratic President Joe Biden to raise the debt ceiling, or the country’s borrowing limit.
The House committee still has several bills that are unapproved, and the ones that they have passed were largely along party lines. Some of the House bills — both approved by the committee and still pending — also set lower spending levels than were negotiated, or have what’s known in Congress as a “poison pill,” which is an often tangential provision attached to a larger bill by one party that is a dealbreaker to the other party. This year, at least eight of the 12 House bills contain measures sought by conservative Republicans that aim to restrict access to abortion, to restrict access to gender-affirming care, or both, Axios has reported. These bills as they are are therefore unlikely to pick up many, if any, Democratic votes.
What Happens Next?
Murray said that the full Senate will take up several of the bills this week.
“Like all of my colleagues, I have been back home with my constituents — talking about their concerns and their priorities,” Murray told reporters last week. “And let me tell you: They do not want to spend the next month wondering if Congress is going to fulfill its most basic obligation and fund the government.”
“We are full steam ahead here in the Senate and as we move forward, I hope that my colleagues in both chambers remember that the power of the purse rests with Congress. We have to take that responsibility seriously,” Murray continued.
But McCarthy is facing what is expected to be a tumultuous month, and the contrast between the processes in the two chambers will likely be stark. The House is split 222-212 in favor of Republicans, so McCarthy cannot afford many defections from within his own conference, where there are already signs of discontent. Some House Republicans want to set levels lower than what was negotiated early this summer with the White House.
Given the dwindling time clock, McCarthy and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are considering a weeks- or months-long measure called a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government at current levels while lawmakers broker a 2024 deal. But the conservative House Freedom Caucus has already said it opposes such a stop-gap measure unless provisions are added to fund border security and decrease spending on what members called the Biden administration’s “woke and weaponized federal bureaucracy” — demands that won’t be popular with Democrats.
What Are the Main Areas of Disagreement?
The House-passed appropriations bills, and some that are still being negotiated, do not fund programs at the level that was agreed to by McCarthy and Biden as part of their deal to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats in both the House and Senate want to stick to that earlier deal.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has analyzed some of the bills that would set lower spending limits. The progressive-leaning organization found that House Republicans have proposed less funding for the Agriculture Department’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) that would result in more than 5 million young children and pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding people having their fruit-and-vegetable benefit reduced or eliminated. Funding for Head Start, a federal program for early childhood education and health for low-income families, would be cut by $750 million, or about 6 percent. Another House bill would cut an Education Department grant-making program for school districts in communities with high levels of poverty by 77 percent, to $14.7 billion. One bill would eliminate “Title X” grants for family-planning clinics that serve low-income patients — these clinics received $286 million in 2023.
Then there are the riders that Democrats see as poison pills. House Republicans have proposed using the appropriations process to overturn the Food and Drug Administration’s decision that eased access to the medication abortion drug mifepristone. They would also like to block the Defense Department policy that covers travel costs for service members and their families in anti-abortion states to go out-of-state for care. They take aim at the Biden administration’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The 19th previously covered at least 45 anti-LGBTQ+ provisions that include restricting gender-affirming care, weakening discrimination protections for same-sex couples and banning the use of federal dollars to fly Pride flags at government buildings.
What Happens If Congress Needs More Time to Negotiate?
Congressional leaders will aim to pass a continuing resolution, or a CR, to keep the government open at current funding levels. A July report from the Congressional Research Service notes that since the fiscal year was set as October 1 through September 30 in 1977, Congress has had to use one or more continuing resolutions in all but three years, including every year since 1998.
What Happens If Congress Doesn’t Make the Deadline?
This triggers a government shutdown. That means that all federal agencies must stop “nonessential” functions until money is appropriated for the next fiscal year. Mandatory spending is not affected, and functions deemed “essential” continue as decided by individual agencies as well as the Office of Management and Budget. Examples of nonessential services that could be affected are at the national parks, which would turn away visitors for the duration of a shutdown. It also can impact benefits that Americans receive, for example taking away the ability of the Agriculture Department to send out SNAP benefits after the first 30 days, according to the Committee for a Responsible Budget.
What Could This Mean for McCarthy?
McCarthy’s path to the speakership was tumultuous. Most of the 20 Republican representatives who ultimately voted against him are Freedom Caucus members. In order to get over the finish line, McCarthy agreed to a rules change that makes it easier to remove him as speaker, requiring only one representative to bring what’s called a “motion to vacate,” which passes by a simple-majority vote. In theory, if the government-funding negotiations become prolonged or intractable, a small group of Republicans could work with Democrats or vice versa to try to remove McCarthy as speaker. Some Freedom Caucus members made motion-to-vacate threats during the debt-limit fight.
How Can I Find Out What Role My Senator or Representative Is Playing?
The chairs and ranking members of the appropriations committees will continue to play a central role as negotiators, as will party leaders — but there are also ways that rank-and-file lawmakers not directly involved in the appropriations process can ask for projects in their states and districts.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus will also be sought-after votes by McCarthy to get a Republican-backed deal through. The Freedom Caucus does not publish a full list of its members, but outside groups and the media track who is and isn’t a part of this critical group.
Lawmakers in both the Senate and House can also request “community project funding” for their states and districts. These requests used to be called earmarks, but were rebranded when Democrats revived the process in 2021 after a decade-long hiatus. Chris Cassella, who is finishing his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin researching American politics and policy, was part of a team that recently analyzed these requests. He told The 19th that Democrats are more likely to ask for funding for specific groups in their party coalition, while Republicans focus on traditional bricks-and-mortar infrastructure projects within their communities. You can search records kept by the House and Senate appropriations committees to see if your representative has submitted such requests.