Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Leahy On Passage Of The FY 2019 "Minibus" Appropriations Bill

Today we are voting on final passage of the first package of Senate appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019.  This “minibus” contains three appropriations bills - the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, and the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. 

Chairman Shelby and I, working closely with Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer, have committed to getting the appropriations process back on track.  Our strategy has been to advance appropriations bills that have bipartisan support, comply with the budget deal, and are free of poison pill riders or controversial authorizing legislation.   This was the first test of that strategy, and I think both sides of the aisle should be pleased with the result.  We had a good debate on this package of bills, including eight roll call votes, and adoption of a manager’s package containing 32 amendments on which we could reach agreement.  This minibus is the result of hard work and compromise on the part of the Chair and Ranking Member of each Subcommittee and I urge that Senators vote “aye” on final passage.   

Importantly, during the debate on this package of bills, the Senate voted to table a controversial amendment offered by Senator Lee to overturn the 2015 Clean Water Rule relating to “Waters of the U.S.”  This rule was designed to prevent pollutants from spreading through tributaries into our Nation's drinking water supply.  The Lee amendment not only would have driven a stake through the heart of Clean Water Rule, it would have done so without having to abide by Administrative Procedure Act, effectively eliminating public participation in the process and side stepping the arbitrary and capricious standard by which repeal of a rule should be judged.  I opposed this amendment not only because I believe repealing the Clean Water Rule is shortsighted and doing it in this manner would set a terrible precedent for other bedrock environmental regulations, but because this is precisely the type of poison pill policy rider we have worked so hard to avoid. 

The adoption of the Lee amendment would have endangered our ability to complete our work on this minibus.  We tabled the amendment with votes from both sides of the aisle, including from Senators who agreed with the substance of the Lee amendment because they recognized this reality as well.  This is how the process should work.  By focusing on funding matters, and avoiding controversial policy riders, we have ended the Senate debate with a bipartisan product that both Democrats and Republicans can support. 

The House, unfortunately, is pursuing a different path.  They are taking up partisan bills filled with poison pills riders that cannot and will not pass the Senate, including a rider similar to the defeated Lee amendment.  Democrats proceeded to this package of bills in good faith, and we will go into conference negotiations with that same approach.  But if our progress is to continue, the bills that come out of conference must be bills that can pass the Senate, which means they must be free of poison pills.  This minibus provides significant resources to the support and care of our Nation’s veterans and their family members, and it makes critical investments in our country’s water infrastructure and energy programs.  It should not be used as a vehicle to advance a partisan agenda. 

Before concluding my remarks, there is one issue that we were not able to address in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill that we must address in conference.  The bill still does not provide enough money to cover the costs associated with the VA Choice program, which was transferred to the discretionary side of the budget under the MISSION Act.  The MISSION Act only provided funding for this program through May 2019, leaving the balance unaddressed.  To cover the shortfall, we will need an estimated $1.6 billion more in FY 2019, an additional $8.6 billion in FY 2020, and $9.5 billion in FY 2021. 

These costs were not accounted for when we negotiated the budget caps in the bipartisan budget deal, so the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee were unable to address the shortfall within their allocation without cutting funding for other important programs.  Chairman Shelby and I filed an amendment—the “Complete the MISSION” amendment—which would have provided the flexibility needed to make sure we fulfill this commitment to our veterans, without triggering sequestration or requiring cuts to other veterans programs. 

On June 19, we received a letter from 33 veterans’ service organizations, representing millions of veterans, service members and their families, in support of this amendment.  I ask unanimous consent that this letter be included in the record.  Unfortunately, we were not able to reach agreement to get a vote on our amendment or have it included in the manager’s package.  Chairman Shelby and I remain committed to solving this problem in conference.  Not doing so would jeopardize the health care and well-being of the men and women who have faithfully served our country, and I am not willing to accept that.  None of us should.

I want to thank Chairman Shelby and the Chairs and Ranking Members of each subcommittee for their hard work.  I hope this will provide a road map for considering the rest of the appropriations bills going forward. 

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CONTACT: Jay Tilton – 202-224-2667