Spending talks face new pressure
Posted by gevans@thehill.com Jordain Carney and Niv Elis on 14th March 2018

This post was originally published on The Hill - Senate News

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Congress is scrambling to avoid its third government shutdown of the year as lawmakers slog through negotiations ahead of next week’s deadline.

Republicans had hoped to buy themselves some extra time by having the House vote on a mammoth funding bill this week. That would have helped the Senate avoid an hours-long shutdown like the one forced last month by Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP’s tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE (R-Ky.).


But that timeline appears to be slipping amid a standoff on controversial policy riders.

Senators are now predicting the legislation will be filed by Friday — or as late as Sunday. Either day would drive Congress’s spending drama down to the wire.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCornyn: We’ll need at least one more stopgap funding bill Moore supporters fire back at Richard Shelby Disaster aid becomes hostage to funding fight MORE (R-Ala.), the next chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said negotiators are winnowing down the number of “poison pills” — provisions suggested for inclusion in the package considered non-starters by either party.

“We’re still negotiating. … All I can tell you is, we’re down not to one or two items, but we’re down [to] serious stuff,” he said.

Congress has until March 23, less than two weeks, to pass the omnibus, capping off months of negotiations and back-to-back stopgap funding contingencies. 

Shelby said there were a “number of things” that still need to be resolved, but declined to go into details.

One thing lawmakers are not haggling over is funding levels.

The bipartisan budget caps deal reached in February settled the funding question, allowing spending to increase by $80 billion for defense and $63 billion for nondefense. The deal gave appropriators plenty of wiggle room to allocate funds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that the House is hoping to file the bill this week.

“Oh, I would hope by the end of the [work] week,” added Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntRussian assault on ‘American idea’ enables Trump to take tough action Eleven lawmakers have used campaign funds to pay NRA dues: report Kimmel writer tweets amount NRA has given lawmakers in response to shooting prayers MORE (Mo.), who is both a member of Republican leadership and the Appropriations Committee.

But other senators are less optimistic, raising the possibility that lawmakers could need the weekend to clear several remaining hurdles that are slowing down talks.

Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems go on the attack during EPA chief’s hearing Bipartisan group of senators ask Trump to fund broadband in infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ark.) pointed to Sunday. Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyGrassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Popular bill to fight drug prices left out of budget deal Judiciary Dems want public hearings with Kushner, Trump Jr. MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, added “that would not surprise me.”

“It doesn’t get any better the longer we wait. It really doesn’t,” Leahy added.

Asked about the timeline for the bill, spokesmen for the Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment. A House GOP aide said early Tuesday afternoon that there wasn’t a timeline for posting the bill but that it would not happen in the next 24 hours.

The delay complicates initial hopes by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTrump talk riles advocates on both sides of gas tax House GOP pushes hard-line immigration plan as Senate deals fail Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE (R-Calif.) and other lawmakers to vote on the legislation this week, though some members held out hope the omnibus would still come together before the weekend.

A Democratic aide told The Hill that negotiators are aiming to finalize an omnibus package by the end of Wednesday, which could let the House vote on Friday.

“That’s still the goal,” the aide said. “We’re going to have to kind of step on the gas [to meet it].”

If the bill is released Friday, the House would not be able to vote on it until Monday without a rule change. McConnell will also need the consent of every senator — something that has eluded him in the past — to speed up votes and meet the midnight Friday deadline.

The behind-the-scenes negotiations come as Congress has shuttered the government twice in as many months.

In January, Senate Democrats and a small band of Republicans blocked a weeks-long continuing resolution (CR) as they demanded a vote on a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In February, Paul forced a brief shutdown because he couldn’t get a vote on his amendment to cut government spending.

Now, the tough issues span an array of contentious political matters, ranging from abortion and women’s health to Trump’s proposed border wall, possible fixes to the GOP tax law, agricultural incentives and health-care provisions.

“There are a lot of riders that Republicans want to put in, poison pills that need to be taken off. There are a whole bunch of them,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDems pan Trump’s budget as helping the wealthy Senate Dems push FDA to reject alternative cigarette health claims Trump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions MORE (Md.).

Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse Dems urge Trump to fully fund Amtrak partners A pro-science approach to Yucca Mountain appropriations Blue-state Republicans push tax law changes MORE (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, had reportedly floated a solution: dropping all riders, whether Democratic or Republican, from the bill.

“Her proposal was: Let’s drop every rider no matter who’s for it, and just have a riderless — not driverless — but riderless omnibus,” Democratic House Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Calls mount from Dems to give platform to Trump accusers  Citing deficits, House GOP to take aim at entitlements MORE (Md.) said earlier in the day.

Shelby cast doubt on that approach.

“ ‘All’ is an all-inclusive thing,” he said, indicating that it might be tough to even negotiate which policies counted as poison pills, and which were agreed upon policy fixes.

One of the biggest poison pill controversies has swirled around abortion.

Democrats said the GOP was attempting to block funds from organizations such as Planned Parenthood and programs aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. They raised concerns that the administration might cut off Title X family-planning grant funds.

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeFlorida shooting reopens CDC gun research debate House GOP pushes hard-line immigration plan as Senate deals fail Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE (R-Okla.), who heads the Appropriations health subcommittee, said Democrats were looking to circumvent the administration and break from previous policy.

Blunt hinted on Tuesday that they are making progress on that issue, saying talks are “headed in the right direction.”

But other potential policy landmines remain before negotiators can lock down the bill.

The Trump administration warned last week that it could veto the government bill if it includes money for the Gateway tunnel and is actively lobbying GOP leadership to leave it out.

But the project — which would rebuild passenger rail connections under the Hudson River between New York City and Newark, N.J. — is a top priority for Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans’ silence ‘deafening’ on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenExiting lawmakers put in calls to K Street Ex-New York Jets lineman mulling run for House SEC paperless mandate a bad deal for rural, elderly investors MORE (R-N.J.), who have sway over the crafting of the legislation.

Schumer indicated on Tuesday that he still wants funding included in the omnibus, despite the administration’s threats.

“There is broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate for Gateway, and I hope it will stay in the bill,” he said.

And while Democrats have dropped their demand that a DACA fix be included in the bill, Trump’s trip to examine prototypes of the U.S.-Mexico border wall have sparked concerns that the perennial sticking point could reemerge as a last-minute fight.

“I don’t know. I’m anxious to see what comes out of his visit today,” said GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March Outgoing GOP rep: Republican Party ‘heading into trouble’ in election MORE (Ariz.), predicting any digging in by Trump could make it more complicated for Democrats to support the bill.

Schumer previously offered to put $25 billion in border wall funding on the table as part of negotiations with Trump in January, but Democrats accused the president of walking away from the deal because of pressure from the right.

Asked about funding on Tuesday, Schumer called the wall “ineffectual and expensive” but said he wouldn’t negotiate in public.

“I don’t think the wall is border security. We will fight for real border security, not fake border security, plain and simple,” he said. “We’re not drawing red lines in the sand as we negotiate.”

Mike Lillis contributed