President looms large over McConnell-Pelosi spending ceiling talks

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (R-Ky.) is trying to build a functional working relationship with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Is there internet life after thirty? Pelosi says Dems 'have to be ready to throw a punch — for the children' in 2020 MORE (D-Calif.) as the two tackle the mammoth task of winning a deal on fiscal spending ceilings for the next year.

McConnell says the deal is his top legislative priority after the April recess, but achieving it won’t be easy.

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Democrats are insisting on parity between defense and nondefense spending, arguing any hike for the Pentagon must be equal to that for domestic spending.

That directly contradicts the wishes of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE, whose budget proposed slashing nondefense spending while increasing defense spending by 5 percent.  

The 2020 presidential campaign is already hanging over the talks,
putting additional pressure on Pelosi and Trump — who already have a decidedly cool relationship.

That’s placed McConnell, a former appropriator, as the unlikely man in the middle — one who last week was almost pleading with Washington’s other leaders to figure out a path forward.

“We have got to get used to talking to each other,” McConnell told reporters last week after reaching out to Trump and Pelosi about kickstarting the talks.

“The only way we can, in a divided government, get a rational spending-cap bill is in the political center,” he said. “Her most liberal members probably won’t vote for it. Many of my conservative members won’t vote for it, but we have to do it because the country will suffer, either through a [continuing resolution] or, even worse, a sequester if we don’t do it.” 

The collapse of bipartisan negotiations on a disaster relief supplemental spending bill before the April recess underscored how toxic the political environment has become for passing legislation. 

Trump inserted himself into the middle of the talks, taking a hard line against additional federal aid for Puerto Rico. 

Veterans of the process say the presidential race seems to be weighing on the negotiations earlier than ever before.

“There is a complete breakdown. The parties can’t get together on anything, they can’t even agree on disaster supplementals, which traditionally have been bipartisan deals that had overwhelming support. It just shows the parties are well into election mode and neither party wants to give the other party an edge,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate Republican aide. 

House Democrats want to increase nondefense spending by $34 billion, or 6 percent, nearly twice as much as the increase for defense spending. 

But Trump has made catering to his conservative base a central plank of his reelection strategy. He is likely to be reluctant to agree to a deal that increases defense and nondefense spending across the board.  

“Ever since the sequester was blown up and undone, conservatives have been angry because Republicans are losing the branding of controlling spending and cutting spending and
trying to balance the budget,” Darling said, referring to the automatic spending cuts that Congress has averted over the past six years with temporary agreements on higher budget caps.  

Trump threatened last year to veto a bipartisan deal stuck by congressional leaders to increase discretionary spending by $300 billion over fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019. 

He said he was “disappointed” that in order to increase military spending Republicans had to give in on programs that are either “bad” or a “waste of money” and pledged to “never sign another bill like this again.” 

But Republican appropriations experts say there’s no way to get Congress to agree to Trump’s priority of increasing military spending without boosting funding for Democratic-favored programs. 

“I think McConnell and Pelosi could make a deal. I also think they could make a deal on disaster aid. I think the problem is Trump and I think the problem is he’s just not coherent on the subject. I don’t know why he would not want a new caps deal,” said Jim Dyer, the former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. 

The most likely path to getting a deal on spending appears to be the path lawmakers took to end the 35-day government shutdown, when senior members of the Senate and House Appropriations committees negotiated an agreement among themselves and then presented it to the White House as the only way to move forward.

“My sense is they’re going to have to negotiate something on the Hill and present it to him and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to do this thing and if you don’t do this thing, you’re going to get sequestration and you’ve got to understand what that does to the troops,’ and then they might be able to get some acquiescence,” Dyer said. 

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When Democrats controlled the White House and Senate under former President Obama, they insisted on dollar-for-dollar parity for defense and nondefense programs in negotiations to raise spending levels above the stringent caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. 

Democrats say they want to return to that principle of parity.

Roger Hickey, a liberal advocate and co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, describes it as an issue that unifies the party.   

“It’s very important and it unifies most if not all the Democrats from left to middle to right,” he said, noting that most Democrats running for president are calling for increased spending on domestic programs. 

Without a spending deal, Congress will have to pass a stopgap spending measure to keep current funding levels in place or default to the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration — set by the Budget Control Act — which are due to kick in in January. 

“I think it’s very hard,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said of the prospects of reaching a deal.

“It’s a really hard thing to find a way to get Republicans and Democrats and to get the Congress and the president to deal with the issue of budget caps,” he said. “That’s going to be a tall order. There’s very little historical evidence in the last couple years that there’s able to be progress, either working across the aisle in Congress or working with this president.”