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Spending talks face new pressure

Spending talks face new pressure
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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 PaulGOP lawmaker calls for Wuhan probe to 'prevent the next pandemic' All congressional Democrats say they have been vaccinated: CNN Fauci on Rand Paul: 'I just don't understand what the problem is with him' MORE (R-Ky.).

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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 ShelbyBiden officials testify that white supremacists are greatest domestic security threat Republicans embrace Trump in effort to reclaim Senate Top Senate Democrat announces return of earmarks 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 McConnellWashington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Lawmakers reach agreement on bipartisan Jan. 6 commission 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 BluntMissouri Republicans move to block Greitens in key Senate race On The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week 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 GOP opens door to earmarks Arkansas governor quietly bucking GOP's dive into culture wars Trump allies line up ahead of potentially bruising primaries MORE (R-Ark.) pointed to Sunday. Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection Biden officials testify that white supremacists are greatest domestic security threat Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap 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 McCarthySunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans McCarthy dings Biden after meeting: Doesn't have 'energy of Donald Trump' Cheney: McCarthy should 'absolutely' testify before Jan. 6 commission 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 HollenTensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted Van Hollen says members should stand with Cheney on election claims MORE (Md.).

Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyLobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs 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 HoyerWhat's a party caucus chair worth? House fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP 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 ColeNow that earmarks are back, it's time to ban 'poison pill' riders Parade of 2024 GOP hopefuls court House conservatives Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings dies at 84 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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm 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 FlakeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Republican reactions to Cheney's removal Flake: No greater offense than honesty in today's Republican Party Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP 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