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Lawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms

Rank-and-file members of both parties are skeptical they will reach a deal on a spending package in the next four weeks, and expect they’ll have to approve another stopgap measure to prevent a government shutdown.

While top appropriators say they’ve made progress on how to tackle the 12 annual spending bills that keep the government running, the short timeline and continued disagreement over President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s proposed border wall have left many skeptical.

The House is expected to vote on a continuing resolution (CR) this week that would prevent a government shutdown on Nov. 22 and push the deadline until Dec. 20. But many sound doubtful they will be ready to make a new deal next month.

“Unless something unusual happens around here, I don’t see how we get all our work done and put all the pieces together by [December] 20th,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardOvernight Health Care: CDC panel recommends who gets vaccine first | McConnell offering new relief bill | Hahn downplays White House meeting on vaccines Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Democratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief MORE (D-Calif.), who heads of the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee that deals with wall funding.

Trump’s wall has been the primary issue preventing Congress from reaching a funding deal for the 2020 fiscal year, which began in October.

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It led to a 35-day partial government shutdown that began at the end of last year, and lawmakers are wary that it could lead to one again despite assurances from Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinBiden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' MORE this week that there would be no shutdown.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans agreed to overall spending levels in a summer budget deal. That deal created a $1.3 trillion cap on government spending for the next year, which is $322 billion higher than the previous year.

But the wall has prevented lawmakers from agreeing on how to split the money between the 12 spending bills.

Trump’s February decision to reprogram defense and military construction funds through a state of emergency only complicated negotiations, spreading the wall issue to several of the 12 annual bills.  

Without an agreement on the wall, which would require more money for Homeland Security at the expense of bills such as Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, appropriators said they couldn’t finalize numbers or strike deals on the less controversial bills.

That dynamic changed at a Thursday meeting with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop More hands needed on the nuclear football Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus MORE (D-Calif.) and Mnuchin, where top appropriators agreed to put off specifics about the wall and other controversies and work toward a deal on spending allocations by Nov. 20.  

“There was a general agreement from all sides that it was important to get our work done, and we intend to move forward and get our work done,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTrump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency This week: Trump's grip on Hill allies faces test Trump signs .3T relief, spending package MORE (D-N.Y.).

“Once those allocations are done, then the individual committees work with the challenges and areas where there are differences,” she added.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE (R-Ala.) sounded an optimistic note.

“It’s the best meeting we’ve had in months,” he said, though he added that “we’ve got some more steps to go,” including getting feedback from the White House.

Mnuchin said the administration intended to keep the government open.
 
“We have no intention of having a shutdown. I think everybody intends to keep the government open,” he said following the meeting.
 
But even with a potential deal on funding allocations, appropriators worry that four weeks will not be enough time to iron out differences, and that the wall issue could drag things further.
 
“It seems ambitious,” said Rep. Tom GravesJohn (Tom) Thomas GravesGeorgia House to consider replacing Confederate statue with statue of John Lewis Biden calls for the nation to 'unite, heal and rebuild in 2021' Lawmakers share New Year's messages: 'Cheers to brighter days ahead' MORE (R-Ga.), an appropriator, of the December deadline.
 
Controversy over the administration’s so-called “gag rule” on abortion, which blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving Title X funds, is also a major obstacle.
 
“Everybody’s going to work really hard to try and get it done by the 20th, but they’re also talking about — it may go into February, another CR into February,” said Roybal-Allard.
 
The ongoing impeachment process could also make it difficult to work out deals and find floor time to pass new spending bills. Lawmakers fret that every new deadline raises the risk of a shutdown.
 
But members of congressional leadership made the case that kicking the can down the road further would only cause Congress to delay further.
 
“I try to set earlier deadlines rather than later deadlines, because I think we all get our work done,” said House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.).
 
Running the government on continuing resolutions carries its own costs.
 
The stopgap freezes spending at existing levels, leaving programs essentially in limbo, blocking government agencies from embarking on new projects or reprioritizing their spending. It also prevents lawmakers from winning new spending for favored projects.
 
“We prefer to not have a continuing resolution. So we have to make some decisions as we go forward,” Pelosi noted on Thursday.
 
But fiscal conservatives such as White House acting Chief of Staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyTrump campaign had paid .7M to organizers of rally ahead of Capitol riot: report Consumer bureau director resigns after Biden's inauguration FDA chief says he was 'disgusted' by Capitol riots, considered resigning MORE like that CRs block increases in spending. That’s one reason he floated a yearlong CR earlier in the year, a threat that has hung over the spending talks.
 
Fiscal conservatives have slammed the White House for overseeing a massive spike in the debt, which surpassed $23 trillion this month for the first time ever as the deficit nears $1 trillion.
 
Defense hawks and proponents of the wall balked at the idea, pointing out that it would prevent any new funds for physical barriers and prevent a spike in defense spending.
 
Hoyer seemed to blame Mulvaney for holding up progress, saying that disagreement from the White House has stopped Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.) from agreeing to move things forward.
 
“In my opinion, McConnell was waiting on an ‘okay’ from the White House to proceed. Mulvaney did not want to proceed,” Hoyer said in an MSNBC interview on Thursday morning.
 
“The fact that he’s sidelined now, perhaps will give us some room for progress,” he added.
 
Jordain Carney contributed.