McConnell eyes fall talks to avert shutdown

Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnell9/11 bill is a global blunder that will weaken US efforts abroad States urged to bolster election security How the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said he would begin negotiations with Democrats to prevent a government shutdown in September.

The majority leader vowed there would not be another shutdown on his watch — but it could be difficult to avoid, given the long list of thorny issues he will have to tackle this fall.

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Funding for the government is set to run out at the end of September, and Democrats and the White House want to increase defense and nondefense spending.

Some Republicans are also demanding new defense spending, and many GOP lawmakers and Republicans running for president want to defund Planned Parenthood. The debt ceiling is also going to have to be lifted later this year.

As usual, McConnell has been playing his cards close to the vest. But his main goal is to minimize drama and maintain the Senate Republican majority in 2016. Messy fiscal fights could increase the chance Democrats win back the upper chamber.

The Kentucky Republican hasn’t told colleagues of his endgame plans, but they suspect he is angling for a yearlong spending measure that would allow him to sidestep a fight over busting the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“Whatever minimizes the drama, because Mitch is not a big fan of drama,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity.

A short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open through the end of the year is expected in September.

There are few legislative days next month because of the Jewish holidays, a visit from the pope and a congressional recess that lasts until Sept. 8.

The budget endgame is complicated by a clamor from the GOP base in recent days to defund Planned Parenthood following the release of a series of covert videos that show officials at the organization discussing the cost of fetal tissue. Presidential politics will be a major problem for McConnell this fall, as the candidates will be wooing the base to win the GOP nomination.

Conservatives will insist on adding policy riders to defund the organization, while Senate Democrats will filibuster any language they view as infringing on women’s healthcare.

McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will also have to figure out a way to extend the Highway Trust Fund and raise the debt limit.

Aides say they would prefer to deal with those matters separately from the spending fight, believing President Obama has more leverage when big issues get balled up into one set of high-profile talks. 

McConnell said Tuesday that budget talks would begin “at some point” in the fall.

“Let me say it again, no more government shutdowns,” he told reporters.

“We have divided government. The different parties control the Congress, control the White House, and at some point we’ll negotiate the way forward,” he added.  

But talking with Democrats is unlikely to yield an agreement McConnell can tout to his own party. Democrats are insisting that any increase in defense spending be matched dollar for dollar with an increase for nondefense programs.

That would undermine what McConnell has consistently promoted as one of the GOP’s greatest policy accomplishments in the past five years: Cutting spending through the Budget Control Act.

“McConnell is very leery of reopening a debate over budget levels that we negotiated with Democrats and led to the first real cut in government spending since the 1950s. That’s something he negotiated and he’s proud of and led to a very good result,” said a Senate GOP aide.

Yet McConnell is under pressure from Republican colleagues to begin talks with Democrats in a bid to avoid a continuing resolution that would wipe out the Appropriations Committee’s work this year on spending bills.

Until this week, he has resisted those calls.

“A few of us have suggested that we should start talks and get something going with Democrats, but Mitch has been very consistent. He’s said we have to focus on getting through this work period,” said another Republican senator who spoke on background.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday she wants McConnell to begin budget talks, but added that Obama must also show leadership on the looming impasse.

Any deal that raised defense and nondefense accounts simultaneously, however, would prompt a backlash from conservatives — something McConnell wants to avoid heading into next year’s election.

“I don’t know McConnell can do that without guys raising hell on our side,” said another Senate Republican aide.

A year-end proposal busting the budget caps would face staunch opposition in the House, where it would have to rely on Democratic votes to pass.

“Boehner is in a tougher spot because he has a larger group of guys who will say, ‘Hell no, we’ll take a government shutdown,’” the aide added. “He has 150 guys who don’t want to capitulate to the president.”

By stringing out budget talks until late-December, McConnell can offer a yearlong continuing resolution as a last-minute solution to avoid a government shutdown, in hopes that colleagues will seize it as the only viable option, Senate Republican and Democratic sources say.

That would allow him to keep the spending caps in place and avoid a fight with Republicans who want to increase the defense numbers, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and avoid a standoff with Obama over raising only the defense accounts.

Democratic leaders on Tuesday declined to say whether they would oppose a clean one-year continuing resolution.

“Let’s see what they’re trying to do. There’s no such thing as a clean [continuing resolution] in the minds of the Republicans. They have to stick something on it, which they will do,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

A Senate Democratic leadership aide predicted that McConnell would not be able to pass a clean stopgap without riders defunding Planned Parenthood or the Environmental Protection Agency.

“With any continuing resolution, there’s going to be incredible pressure to put riders on it,” acknowledged a conservative Senate aide.

A clean yearlong stopgap would give McConnell the best opportunity to avoid a shutdown fight with Obama, but persuading his GOP colleagues to drop the riders may take several rounds of failed votes, aides said.