Bolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran
Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown brawl
Senators are hoping to get the government funding process back on track after the months-long fight over President Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Though Congress managed to avoid a partial funding lapse after Trump agreed to sign a deal last week, lawmakers face another deadline later this year to prevent a governmentwide shutdown that would strike roughly a year before the 2020 election.
The Senate Appropriations Committee managed to pass all 12 individual fiscal 2019 funding bills with bipartisan support, but their work was derailed on the floor amid a standoff between the White House and Democrats, and infighting among Republicans, that led to multiple continuing resolutions and the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
"Obviously the border security fight was holding up the 25 percent that hadn't been done," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "It's been to my mind kind of an unnecessary political football."
Part of the success at the committee level in the Senate stems from a deal struck by Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to avoid including what are referred to as poison pills. Though Republicans could wrestle controversial bills through committee, where they have a majority, legislation needs 60 votes to clear the Senate floor, a threshold that requires support from Democrats.
"What we'd like to do is what we did last year - remember, we passed all the bills for the first time in I think 15, 20 years," Leahy said, but added that it's "up to leadership" to move bills across the Senate floor in time.
Shelby added that they wanted to move bills through the Appropriations Committee faster and try to avoid piling everything up on the Senate floor toward the October deadline because "the more you put on the wagon, it overloads it and generally bogs down."
"I would hope that we can approach it in at least an accelerated way," Shelby added. "We realize it's getting toward March already."
Shelby and Leahy say they have already started talking about ways to avoid a similar train wreck on the floor as Congress faces an end-of-September deadline for the fiscal 2020 bills, but there are multiple hurdles awaiting lawmakers if they are going to avoid a shutdown later this year.
Congress will first have to resolve a lingering battle over Trump's border wall and the president's decision to declare a national emergency to get additional funding for the barrier.
House Democrats are expected to file a resolution Friday to block the emergency declaration, and lawmakers could vote on the measure as soon as next week, kicking the fight to the upper chamber. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that a companion resolution would be introduced in the Senate "soon" and urged Republicans to support it.
Though Trump has identified $8 billion in funds for the wall, including the $1.375 billion included in the recently passed funding bill, the administration could still request more funding as part of the next round of spending as they brace for a legal battle that will tie up the money the president is getting from the emergency declaration.
Asked if the Department of Homeland Security would be another sticking point, Shelby hedged, noting that building the wall was a multiyear effort and the "debate won't end."
The presidential budget will kick-start the fight on fiscal 2020 funding by outlining the White House's top fiscal and political priorities. But the mammoth document is largely sidelined to being a symbolic paperweight on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have ignored Trump's previous calls for cuts.
Nonetheless, the document, expected to start being released in mid-March, will give lawmakers their first indication of how much money the administration will request for the border.
Trump could always throw lawmakers a curveball by drawing a hard line on wall funding or increasing his request for border money. Trump also initially requested $1.6 billion for 65 miles of new border wall in his fiscal 2019 budget, but then increased his demand to $5.7 billion. He also caught Republicans flat-footed when he rejected a stopgap bill in December because it didn't include extra wall funding.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asked recently if he thought Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could negotiate on behalf of the president, looked bemused and appeared to chuckle silently.
"McConnell has a tough assignment if he's trying to read the president's mind," Durbin said, when asked to articulate his laughter into words.
There are two funding fights that are closer on the horizon for Congress and could portend the ability to avoid a shutdown starting in October: a mid-year fight on raising the debt ceiling and one on getting an agreement on raising the budget caps.
Congress and Trump will have to work out a deal to increase discretionary spending caps on defense and nondefense spending before lawmakers can start work in earnest on the individual funding bills. Without an agreement, automatic budget cuts would be set to kick back in at the start of fiscal 2020.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), an appropriator and member of GOP leadership, said getting a top-line number early would help avoid a traffic jam in September.
"[And] trying to learn our lesson from this time of how great it is when you get 75 percent of this done and it wouldn't take much more effort to get 100 percent of it done," he said. "We should want to do more of what we successfully did last time and less of what we were unsuccessful with."
One significant difference as Congress turns its attention to the 2020 spending fight is that Democrats now control the House, where Republicans last year loaded up their spending bills with abortion and ObamaCare provisions considered to be anathema to Democrats.
Shelby and Leahy worked with Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas), the top two members of the House Appropriations Committee, to craft the latest government funding agreement, giving them a framework for the larger deals they'll need to strike this year.
Shelby said the working relationship the four key negotiators formed was a "good sign" for moving forward and that he hoped House Democrats will have a "different attitude" and want to cooperate when it comes time to reconcile competing funding bills from the House and Senate.
"I hope that they'll see that by cooperating together in a bipartisan way we get things moving," he said. "Otherwise we're obstacles to each other."