Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support

Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support
© Greg Nash

Congress struggled Tuesday to finalize a 2018 spending package, leaving negotiators scrambling for an eleventh-hour breakthrough and top leaders weighing the need for a short-term spending patch to prevent yet another government shutdown on Saturday.

House GOP leaders had hoped to pass a massive $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill on Wednesday, which would have given the Senate several days to move the package through the upper chamber, where a single lawmaker can delay the consideration of bills.

But entrenched partisan differences over a number of policy riders — accompanied by a freak March storm that threatened to dump heavy snow on Washington and shutter Congress on Wednesday — thwarted those plans.

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With time running out until a shutdown, leaders of both parties on Tuesday floated passing what would be the sixth stopgap measure of the fiscal year.

“That would be the one thing we could do,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges MORE (Texas), the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, referring to the possibility of another continuing resolution (CR).

As of press time Tuesday evening, no agreement on the spending package had yet emerged. And while the top leaders of each party were optimistic a deal could be struck before the day’s end, the mood among rank-and-file members was grim.

“It’s just a mess,” one GOP lawmaker told The Hill after Tuesday’s last series of votes.

Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps The Hill's 12:30 Report: Muller testimony dominates Washington Lawmakers, press hit the courts for charity tennis event MORE (R-Pa.), who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, said he’s “uneasy” about the evolving legislation — a reference to both its substance and its prospects on the floor. The drawn-out negotiations, Dent suggested, reflected concerns like his.

“Although I’d like to see this thing closed out Wednesday night, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it,” Dent told The Hill Tuesday afternoon.

The delay, while a headache for GOP leaders in both chambers, is less of a problem in the House, where bills can be passed quickly. The worry is the Senate, where any lawmaker can use the chamber’s procedural rules to block votes, if only temporarily. 

Last month, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) single-handedly prevented leaders of his own party from expediting consideration of a similar budget deal to protest the enormous deficit spending contained in the agreement. Paul’s delay tactic caused a brief government shutdown.

Paul on Tuesday hinted that he might repeat the protest.

“We haven’t decided,” Paul said.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (D-Calif.), who last week had all but dismissed the notion of passing another CR, is conceding a stopgap might be necessary.

“Somebody said that the Senate might not be able to get their work done and there might be a CR just to get through the time,” Pelosi said.

“But we have to pass our bill first.”

The weather is not the only factor squeezing Congress’s schedule. There’s also the funeral for the late Rep. Louise SlaughterDorothy (Louise) Louise SlaughterSeven Republicans vote against naming post office after ex-Rep. Louise Slaughter Breaking through the boys club Sotomayor, Jane Fonda inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame MORE (D-N.Y.), who died last week at age 88 and will be interred in Rochester, N.Y., on Friday.

Slaughter was a beloved figure on Capitol Hill, and many lawmakers from both parties are expected to attend her funeral service.

Even a one-day delay for the omnibus could carry political implications. It could put Senate lawmakers — particularly opponents of gun reform — in the uncomfortable position of being on Capitol Hill amid an enormous march for gun control that is scheduled for Saturday on the National Mall.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE (R-Ky.) said his focus is on passing the omnibus, not worrying about gun protests. 

“We’re going to do it this week, and as long as that takes, that’s the time we’ll put in,” he said.

A few stubborn disagreements persisted into Tuesday evening. One of them revolved around the Republicans’ push for funding for the border wall and heightened enforcement of immigration laws — priorities of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE’s but a non-starter with the Democrats.

A second major sticking point involved the Gateway project, a commuter rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey beneath the Hudson River. The project is a priority of regional lawmakers, but Trump has threatened to veto the omnibus if the roughly $900 million in Gateway funding is attached.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? In-space refueling vs heavy lift? NASA and SpaceX choose both Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown MORE (R-Ala.), who’s soon to take the gavel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, declined to specify the holdups. But in an impromptu game of charades, he revealed what they are.

First Shelby stretched his arms out wide, leading reporters to guess he was referencing the border wall. Then he made a dipping motion with his arm, and reporters guessed “tunnel.”

“Y’all draw inferences pretty well,” Shelby said.

Jordain Carney, Scott Wong and Melanie Zanona contributed.