Budget bill hinges on legislative stocking stuffers

Well, it’s not quite a priest, a minister and a rabbi walking into a bar.

But here’s a riddle for you.

What do the Flint, Mich., water crisis; a drought in California; retired Gen. James Mattis; miners’ health benefits; the Oakland warehouse fire; Pearl Harbor Day and efforts to avoid a government shutdown have to do with when Congress can adjourn for the holidays?


And each component hinges on the other as Congress tries to wrap its work for the year.

“We always try to have a little drama for you guys,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The question is when lawmakers will try to bail on Washington for the rest of the year.

Don’t expect high-wire drama about a government shutdown. That’s out of the question. But lawmakers must unravel a Gordian knot before they tie a bow around 2016.

The government is funded through Friday at 11:59:59 pm ET. The House plans to vote Thursday on an interim spending bill (called a “Continuing Resolution,” or “CR”) which runs the government through April 28, 2017. But the Senate could be another enterprise. The CR includes a controversial “framework” provision to expedite a bill next year to help James Mattis become Defense secretary. Legally, Mattis can’t serve as Pentagon chief unless Congress grants him a “waiver.” National security law stipulates that former active duty military personnel must be off the job for seven years before qualifying for the Defense secretary post. Mattis retired in 2013.

There was some initial consternation about the Mattis provision in the CR. Some senior House Democrats claimed the Mattis effort poisoned the entire legislation. But reservations dissipated Wednesday.

More substantial problems linger over an effort by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to address California’s drought in a separate water infrastructure plan.  Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., could block that bill over environmental concerns and the Endangered Species Act. Such a maneuver could hold consequences for Flint.

The CR itself includes $170 million for Michigan’s water programs -- but not explicitly money tagged for Flint. The wild card is the water infrastructure measure. Congress must approve that bill in order to expressly direct $100 million to Flint. In other words, congressional leaders bifurcated the Flint process. This dares Democrats to vote no on both bills. If Boxer succeeds on the drought, Flint fails to receive money for the water crisis. That’s because the trigger mechanism to send the money to Flint lives in the water infrastructure bill -- not the CR.

So even as the House is poised to okay the CR, the Senate could be a day or more away.

By Wednesday evening, health care programs for retired miners emerged as perhaps the biggest issue threatening immediate passage of the CR. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led the charge to delay passage of the stopgap spending bill. Manchin argues the CR offers miners a four-month Band-Aid to maintain their health care. He wants a longer package.

Not every Pearl Harbor Day presents senators the opportunity to object to a resolution marking the attack – especially on the 75th anniversary of the raid. But that's exactly what unfolded on the Senate floor Wednesday. Manchin and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, blocked a number of non-controversial resolutions which usually slip through the body without much fanfare. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., repeatedly tried to earn clearance from Manchin and Brown on a panoply of measures. But the Democrats alternated in their objections on the grounds that they weren’t budging until the miners found justice.

The Ohio Democrat noted that his GOP colleagues often demand “certainty” from Congress for corporate interests.

“But it's alright for mine workers to jack them around. Pardon my language,” said Brown. “We’re not leaving.”

Tillis tried to advance separate measures honoring those killed in the recent Oakland warehouse fire and the Pearl Harbor resolution. But those plans ran into the Manchin/Brown buzzsaw.

“Until we have that long-term solution included in the Miners Protection Act, I am going to have to object,” said Manchin when Tillis tried to move the Oakland fire resolution.

Brown stalled the Pearl Harbor observance.

“I’m for these resolutions,” said Brown. “But they're not resolutions to provide college to the children of the people who died in the fire. Not to the grandchildren of the people who died at Pearl Harbor. They're resolutions that don't mean anything except they're nice.”

Democrats stumbled in the election to connect with working-class voters. Manchin said blocking the CR over miner benefits could resonate with the very people who supported President-elect Donald Trump.

“People felt they were abandoned,” said Manchin. “This gives them a chance to stand for them.”

So what happens if the House approves the CR and the Senate fails?

The House and Senate would simply okay an even “shorter” CR. This would keep the government lights on through early next week. The House would obviously have to approve the package before adjourning.

It’s possible the Senate could remain in session through Monday. If the Senate alters anything okayed by the other body, the House could have to return to sync up.

However, these issues have a way of last-minute resolution around Christmastime. Brinkmanship is a tactic.

That’s because lawmakers face an almost unfathomable pressure to wrap up quickly from the most-powerful group of people in the country: Congressional spouses.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.