Today on the Hill: Appropriations, Cures to Headline Lame-Duck Session

September 30, 2016

With Congress officially out of session until Nov. 14, policymakers are looking ahead to the legislative action that will unfold after the dust settles from Election Day. The recently-passed continuing resolution (CR) (H.R. 5325) expires on Dec.9, meaning that lawmakers will need to either pass eleven appropriations bills, an omnibus combining those eleven measures, or a series of “minibuses” that bloc certain combinations of spending bills to make them more palatable to members.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has suggested Republicans will prioritize work on appropriations bills for the 2017 fiscal year and a legislative package promoting biomedical innovation during the lame duck sssion. The Majority Leader also indicated that two high-profile items – approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and confirming Merrick Garland to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court – will not be on the upper chamber’s agenda. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been pushing to include criminal justice reform in lame-duck considerations, but expectations for that effort have also been tempered by Leadership in the upper chamber.

A spending package is the only true “must-pass” item on Congress agenda for the lame-duck session, and lawmakers are sure to be negotiating various policy riders to be included in the final version. While the CR included the full-year Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriation measure, both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan have voiced their preference for two or more minibus vehicles to fund the government for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year. Aside from riders, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said that a key problem will be dealing with a House plan to shift $18 billion in war funds into the base budget, a strategy designed to force a supplemental spending bill for defense next spring. Democrats in both chambers have strongly opposed a defense spending increase unless it is matched for domestic programs.

While less pressing, a biomedical innovation package – also known as 21st Century Cures – is high on the priority list for Leader McConnell given that leaders of both parties and President Obama have warmed to the bill. While the House overwhelmingly passed a version of the bill (H.R. 6) last year, negotiations stalled in the Senate, where the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee underwent their own deliberative process on a complimentary (and in some cases overlapping) package of policies. In general, the bill overhauls the process that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses to assess and approve new medicines, and provides additional resources for President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative and Vice-President Biden’s ‘Cancer Moonshot’ plans. A key sticking point on the bill has been finding funds to offset additional funding to medical researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – a key demand among Democrats. Party leaders and industry stakeholders have reportedly been engaged in robust negotiations over offset that would prevent brand pharmaceutical companies from barring generic makers access to samples of drugs.

While the White House has made a significant push in recent months over the TPP, sharply divided public opinion over the bill seems to have driven it out of consideration for the lame-duck session. Leader McConnell has said that move to bring up consideration of the TPP would be futile, and given both presidential candidates’ opposition, it would “be defeated anyway.” Liberal opposition and populist sentiment against the deal has led many senators to openly push for renegotiation with the eleven other Pacific Rim signatories, which would be a long and complicated process for U.S. diplomats. However, Congress has provided the White House – regardless of who occupies it – with the ability to submit any trade deal to Congress without amendments under “Trade Promotion Authority,” leaving the door open to alternate versions of the TPP or other future trade deals with Europe (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership T-TIP).

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‘Today on the Hill’ includes updates provided by the House and Senate majority leaders, as well information derived from publications including Bloomberg Government, The Hill, Morning Consult, Kaiser Health News, Modern Healthcare, Inside Health Policy, CQ HealthBeat, and others.