The House approved its FY16 budget resolution (H Con Res 27) on March 25 by a vote of 228-199. The Senate followed two days later, passing a FY16 budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11) with a 52-46 vote. Both approved their respective measures without any Democratic support and will now attempt to reconcile the differences between budgets.
The budget resolution serves as a fiscal blueprint, a non-binding statement of priorities and congressional intent that is not signed into law by the president. Both the Senate- and House-approved fiscal blueprints for FY16 bolster defense spending but freeze non-defense discretionary spending at $493.5 billion—the cap established by the Budget Control Act in 2011. In an attempt to balance the federal budget, however, the Senate would cut projected non-defense spending by $236 billion over 10 years.
The House resolution calls for even deeper cuts, freezing Pell Grant allocations at the current level for the 10-year life of the budget. The Senate budget resolution calls for limiting growth in Pell Grant spending, but does not go as far as the House proposes. A conference agreement would create a concurrent budget resolution and, if agreed upon by both chambers, would pave the way forward for reconciliation legislation—a measure that can be considered under expedited procedures. In the Senate, reconciliation legislation requires only a simple majority, rather than the usual 60-vote majority necessary and cannot be filibustered. In other words, the procedure would allow the Republican-led Senate to approve measures even with total Democratic opposition.
Republicans may consider reconciliation measures to move legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which the president would likely veto), enact comprehensive tax reform, change entitlement programs or alter current budget rules.
NACUBO joined with other members of the Student Aid Alliance in sending a letter to House members expressing disappointment in the House budget resolution. In addition to the proposed Pell Grant freeze, the letter points out the measure would further reduce eligibility for Pell Grants, eliminate the in-school interest subsidy for low-income undergraduates, and require a new method of measuring the cost of student loan programs, artificially inflating the budgetary impact of these programs. The Student Aid Alliance recently sent Congress a list of its FY16 appropriations priorities.
As a part of the budget debate, the Senate held a lengthy "vote-a-rama," during which senators voted on 49 non-binding amendments as an expression of support or opposition. These "messaging" votes included:
- Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) to provide for two free years of community college, REJECTED.
- Susan Collins (R-ME) in support of year-round Pell Grants, APPROVED.
- Richard Burr (R-NC) expressing support for simplifying the student loan repayment system, with income-based repayment options, APPROVED.
- Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) expressing support for allowing student borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, REJECTED.
- Al Franken (D-MN) to prevent proposed cuts in the Pell Grant program, REJECTED.