Internal cracks emerge in GOP strategy to avoid shutdown

Senate Republicans are struggling to unite behind a plan to fund the government after budget talks have ground to a halt. 

Congress has until the end of September to prevent the second government closure of the year, but Republicans are struggling to overcome the first roadblock — agreeing to top-line defense and nondefense figures or deciding what comes next if they can’t.

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The drama over how to fund the government and avoid deep budget cuts has played out in private, closed-door meetings and put a public spotlight on the high-profile split among Republicans as well as with the White House about the best path to avoid a shutdown.  

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTop Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps MORE (R-Ala.) pitched his colleagues during a closed-door lunch about “deeming” top-line defense and nondefense spending levels once they return from the July Fourth recess, absent a budget deal. 

The move would allow Senate Republicans to approximate what they think an eventual budget deal will be and write their funding bills based off that estimate in the meantime. 

"It’s to keep the process seemingly going. We’ve done it before," Shelby told The Hill. "If we don’t do it, and if we don’t get a break on the higher numbers, we’re headed for a CR [continuing resolution], probably lurch from month to month, week to week."

Deeming top-line defense and nondefense spending levels would let Senate appropriators use the tentative numbers to start drafting 12 appropriations bills, which they need to pass either individually or in a package by October to prevent a closure. 

The bills would then be a springboard that could be adjusted if congressional leadership is able to clinch a budget deal. 

House Democrats have already moved 10 out of the 12 government funding bills, giving them potential leverage in any spending negotiations, though the bills include partisan provisions that make them dead on arrival in the Senate. 

Some rank-and-file members are getting antsy that the Senate needs to get the ball rolling or risk facing a traffic jam this fall.

In addition to being out the month of August, the Senate is out starting this week for the July Fourth recess. They are then scheduled to leave town on Sept. 30, the funding deadline, for two weeks. 

“I’m very concerned. We’ve only got about 20 days left between now and the end of September, which is the end of the fiscal year. It looks to me like we’ve got total gridlock right now,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close Trump ally who is up for reelection, told The Hill. 

Perdue noted that Trump, who is overseas, called him late Thursday night “and is concerned about it as well.” 

One idea, floated by Perdue, would be to deem top-line numbers so the Senate could pass a combined defense and health and human services (HHS) bill by the end of September, which would combine two of the biggest priorities for both Republicans and Democrats. 

“I think right now we could do that in the Senate, go ahead and pass a defense-HHS bill and get agreement on that and move on,” he said. 

Asked about Shelby wanting to deem top-line numbers, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (R-Alaska), a member of the Appropriations Committee, said, “I am going to support the chairman. I have been encouraging him every step of the way, get a deal, get a deal, get a deal. I’m still pushing on that, as I know he is, but as a subcommittee chairman, I want to get to work.” 

“Does it make me worried? Yes,” Murkowski also said when asked if she was concerned about the legislative logjam since it is almost July. “Am I ready to go? Yes.” 

The limbo status for Senate appropriators, known for their dealmaking leanings, is a reversal from the last two years when Shelby and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThis week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting The House impeachment inquiry loses another round — and yes, that's still going on Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal MORE (D-Vt.) managed to keep “poison pills,” provisions viewed as non-starters by either party, out of the Senate packages. 

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies MORE (R-Ky.) appeared to pour cold water on the idea of the Senate crafting its own top-line numbers, noting he wanted an agreement that had White House backing.

“I support getting some kind of deal that can tell us how much we can spend so we can go forward. The only thing, however, that strikes me that give us a real number to mark to is one that we know the president will sign,” McConnell told reporters during a press conference.

McConnell added that the House is passing bills based on Democrats' "dream" spending levels, suggesting the figures aren't based in political reality and that the path forward for the Senate absent a caps deal “is more complicated.” 

Shelby, asked about McConnell’s comments, stressed that he would prefer to get a spending caps agreement but said Appropriations staffers are already working on backup bills if they can get clearance from leadership to move forward with creating their own top lines, which would have to be adjusted once they get a budget deal.  

Asked about how his pitch to deem the defense and nondefense levels was received in the lunch, Shelby acknowledged that “McConnell’s not for that yet.” 

Part of the complications on figuring out the path forward, Republicans argue, is that they need House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBottom line This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Women suffering steeper job losses in COVID-19 economy MORE (D-Calif.) and the White House to get on the same page about budget caps.

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McConnell called Pelosi and Trump the “key players,” adding that if “they can agree on how much we are going to spend, then we are not spinning our wheels.” 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said House Democrats have been “extremely inflexible,” including asking for a $2 increase in nondefense discretionary for every $1 increase in defense discretionary. 

Senators have also made little effort to hide their frustration with acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic Trump taps Brooke Rollins as acting domestic policy chief MORE, a former Freedom Caucus member who has advocated for deep budget cuts, and expressed their preference to negotiate with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFive questions about the next COVID-19 relief package Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December MORE

"I think some people at the White House are telling the president that we gotta just do drastic cuts to discretionary spending," Shelby said when asked about the holdup on getting a caps deal. "That’s the Freedom Caucus, a lot of that, and some of their people.” 

Asked if he needed Mulvaney to come on board to get an agreement, Shelby instead pivoted away from the former House member, saying lawmakers "need Mnuchin and the president. Mnuchin is obviously at the moment speaking for the president." 

Leahy, asked about a recent budget meeting, told reporters that the talks with Mnuchin went “very well.”

Pressed about the part with Mulvaney, he deadpanned that “the part with Mr. Mnuchin went very, very well.”

But Mnuchin has also gotten pushback from Republicans over his proposal that Congress pass a one-year continuing resolution, which would freeze current spending levels, with a debt ceiling increase if they can’t get a budget caps deal. 

Perdue said he is planning to outline concerns about a one-year stopgap with the president once he returns from overseas.

"I’m also concerned about a CR. This is a very dangerous thing for the military," he said. "We’re going to have conversations next week when he gets back about the draconian nature."

McConnell called a one-year continuing resolution “unacceptable,” while Thune said it was a "possibility" but not one that everybody wants. 

“I don’t think anybody wants to see that happen. I mean, I think that’s a really bad outcome for our military, national security,” Thune added. “So hopefully they’ll be able to get it back on track and get a deal.”