A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

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In 2015, Congress waited until mid-December to pass a $1.14 trillion omnibus spending bill, which combined 12 appropriation bills into a single package. This year, under new House leadership, experts say we can expect a blend of new appropriations and continuing resolutions -- otherwise known as minibus bills.

It remains to be seen whether Congress can reach agreement on a short-term continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded through the election and beyond to early December, and Democrats and Republicans still have some issues to iron out in advance of the Sept. 30 deadline.

But if a short-term continuing resolution passes, the next step for appropriators would be to figure out what to do for the rest of fiscal 2017.

An omnibus bill takes a fair amount of negotiation among lawmakers. And it can provide an opportunity to throw in a piece of legislation that might not have passed otherwise. For example, the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 was included in last year's omnibus bill after years of legislative failure in passing an information-sharing law.

A minibus bill, on the other hand, likely would not feature many elements or amendments that were not directly related to fiscal 2017 appropriations.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has floated the idea that there might be multiple minibus bills before the Oct. 1 government shutdown deadline, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) talked about a continuing resolution that would last until Dec. 9.

It remains unclear whether lawmakers will move forward with an omnibus bill or multiple minibus bills, and a continuing resolution is still being negotiated.

"That means that, during a lame-duck session after the election, Congress will need to take additional action to keep the government running past the expiration date" of the continuing resolution, Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, told FCW.

She added that legislators could pursue a variety of paths. "One would be to pass an omnibus where all of the unfinished appropriations bills would be rolled into a single bill," she said. "This is what Congress did last December, and it would likely draw heavily on the versions of the stand-alone appropriations bills that the House and Senate appropriations committees developed this year."

Or lawmakers could choose to pass a continuing resolution that covers the rest of the fiscal year, keeping federal programs funded at fiscal 2016 levels. And the third option is a minibus bill, "where a few, but not all, of the unfinished appropriations bills are packaged together," Reynolds said.

The question is whether Republicans and Democrats can agree on whether to choose an omnibus or minibus approach. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that she would be willing to consider minibus bills but only if they included all of what an omnibus bill would have included.

"If the minibuses add up to an omnibus, if everything was included, we can vote on something like that when we see the whole package," Pelosi told reporters on Sept. 15. "You can't say go with one bill, use up all the money and say there's nothing left for the others."

Also, a minibus that includes another round of continuing resolutions for the agencies that don't receive full-year appropriations means that Congress would have to revisit fiscal 2017 funding yet again, raising the specter of the kind of government shutdown that threatened to halt Department of Homeland Security operations in 2015.

"If Congress pursues the minibus route and completes action on some of the appropriations but not others before the [continuing resolution] runs out, then...further action...would be needed to prevent a shutdown of whatever agencies and programs haven't yet been funded," Reynolds said. "It is possible that these members could be persuaded to support one or more narrowly tailored bills, such as a minibus that includes the security-related appropriations bills."

Democrats might worry, however, that a minibus plan could "make it easier for Republicans to increase defense spending while keeping level or reducing non-defense spending," Reynolds said.

On the IT front, funding for the House-passed Modernizing Government Technology Act will hinge on what happens during the lame-duck session. Even if the Senate approves the bill, the working capital funds for IT modernization included in the legislation won't amount to much without money appropriated by Congress.

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