Senate

Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown

Congress and President Trump struck a two-year budget deal, but now comes the hard part: actually funding the government.

With both the House and Senate out of town for the August recess, lawmakers will face a chaotic September. They’ll have three weeks to prevent a second shutdown in a year that is set to start Oct. 1 without congressional action.

“I think you better hold on to your hat in September because it’s going to be a fast track,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Things are going to move.”

Congress has to pass either 12 government funding bills or a continuing resolution (CR) that would give negotiators more time while extending funding at 2019 levels.

The House has passed 10 out of the 12 bills already. But those bills will not pass the Senate in their current form because they are loaded up with “poison pill” riders — provisions Republicans oppose.

The Senate, meanwhile, is at square one after leaving its appropriations process in limbo while the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hashed out the two-year budget deal.

The 12 appropriations bills, in their totality, equal hundreds if not thousands of pages for lawmakers, the White House and their staffs to haggle over. Each bill presents a whack-a-mole of potential political and policy roadblocks that could pop up and stall talks.

The complexity all but guarantees a CR will be needed to fund at least part of the government past Oct. 1. The stopgap measure typically goes into early or mid-December, setting up another funding cliff just before the holidays.

“I don’t think you’re going to see many bills resolved by Oct. 1,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Maybe defense, maybe VA-MilCon. I wouldn’t expect any more than that.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Republican leadership and the committee, said, “I don’t know if we can get a bill on the president’s desk by Sept. 30 or not, but I would certainly like to see one of the bills get there.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee is supposed to have its first markups on Sept. 12, Congress’s first week back from the recess.

That would set it up to attempt a breakneck pace of trying to get a bill to the floor, conferenced with the House and signed by Trump in just over two weeks.

To help knock out a majority of the funding, Senate Republicans are eyeing merging three bills — defense; labor, health and human services; and energy and water development — on the Senate floor in September.

The three bills make up a majority of total spending, helping Congress quarantine at least part of the government from a shutdown threat if senators can stick with their own best-case scenario.

“It we did that that would be over 70 percent of the expenditure,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “That would be progress big time.”

But the bills aren’t without their challenges. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said talks he and his staff have had with Shelby already spotted potential areas of conflict.

“My staff has come to me and said we think the following five things are of interest to us or maybe controversial,” he said.

One of the big hurdles is likely to be language around Trump’s ability to use money from the Pentagon to help build the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Trump administration can start using the $2.5 billion in military funds to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border while litigation plays out.

The wall has been a perennial point of contention between Democrats and the White House and sparked a 35-day partial shutdown.

In an effort to isolate the biggest problem area for the talks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bill, lawmakers are likely to save it for the end.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said delaying taking up DHS was an “invitation for brinkmanship.”

“I would be reluctant to start marking up my subcommittee bill unless we have an understanding on how we’re preceding on homeland security,” he said. “It’s a mistake to start doing bills without any clue how we’re going to land DHS.”

Lawmakers hope a handshake agreement on excluding poison pills will help them navigate around potential roadblocks.

Pressed on what the deal meant for border wall money, Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding and Trump’s ability to transfer money to help pay for the wall, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) demurred.

“Well, some are poison pills, and some are not, but hopefully we can work all these out,” he told reporters.

A document released by Democrats detailing the budget agreement included an understanding that the appropriations bills will not include “poison pills, additional new riders, additional CHIMPS [changes in mandatory programs], or other changes in policy or conventions that allow for higher spending levels, or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touted the document from the Senate floor as a “big win for the White House.”

“The administration has successfully kept far-left poison pills and policy riders entirely out of the process. We had heard that our Democratic colleagues across the Capitol were clamoring to take us backward on the issue of life. … We had heard they were clamoring to try to handcuff the administration’s important work on border security,” he said.

But lawmakers are already facing skepticism that the poison pill agreement will hold as they get into the trenches of the government funding negotiations,or that everyone will be able to agree on what has to be jettisoned from the talks.

“It helps conceptually, but then you get into the weeds. We’ll have to see what happens,” Shelby said.
Pressed on whether everyone agreed on what qualified as a poison pill, Shelby added, “Oh, good question. It begs the question. I gotta go now. That was a great question. … We’ll have to see.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dick Durbin Donald Trump Government shutdown Joe Manchin Jon Tester Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Shelby Roy Blunt

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