BEFORE their Easter recess, the House and Senate both passed their respective budget resolutions for fiscal 2016 — the House on March 25 and the Senate in the wee hours of March 27.
The budget resolutions provide a blueprint for the appropriations process that will take place in the coming months, setting binding top-line spending caps for the House and Senate appropriations committees.
Barring further changes in the upcoming House/Senate conference to produce a final budget resolution, this means the appropriations bills coming up for a vote this summer and fall will face very tight budget caps and enforcement rules for domestic programs, while defense programs will have significant wiggle room through the emergency spending budget gimmick included in both resolutions.
No Democrats voted for the House budget, and 17 Republicans voted against it, including House Agriculture Committee members Reps. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.) and Chris Gibson (R., N.Y.).
The Senate budget resolution passed on a nearly straight party-line vote of 52-46.
In addition to setting the spending caps for fiscal 2016 appropriations, the House used the "budget reconciliation" procedure to direct the agriculture committee to cut $1 billion over 10 years from the programs under its jurisdiction (i.e., the farm bill).
The Senate budget resolution does not contain reconciliation instructions. As the House and Senate conference their respective budget resolutions, if reconciliation instructions are included, both agriculture committees will have to quickly fashion bills that reopen the 2014 farm bill and cut funding.
The Senate also voted on a number of amendments that aren't binding but show support on key issues.
One from Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) calls for creating a deficit-neutral reserve fund to eliminate the federal estate tax. The House version didn't include any estate tax fix, but the House Ways & Means Committee cleared its bill to eliminate the death tax, so the full House could vote on the bill sometime later this year.
An amendment by Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) passed 59-40 that would limit the Environmental Protection Agency from adopting a new definition of "waters of the U.S."
"While the amendment has no chance of becoming law via the budget proposal, it shows that a similar stand-alone bill or amendment could clear the filibuster hurdle of 60 votes in the Senate," USA Rice Federation vice president of government affairs Ben Mosely said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, offered a side-by-side amendment, but it would not prohibit EPA from defining which water bodies are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Instead, it would give Congress the flexibility to "clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act to provide certainty for landowners or rural communities or to preserve existing exemptions for agriculture, ranching or forestry or to rely on the scientific evidence of impacts on water quality of different types of water bodies."
Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, said other amendments important to ranchers include one to protect privately held water rights and permits against federal takeovers and another to facilitate state and local land exchanges.