Congress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit

Congress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit
© Greg Nash

Congressional leaders and senior White House officials are on a path to reach a deal to increase spending caps over the next two years and raise the debt ceiling beyond the 2020 election.

The spending talks, which earlier this month seemed hopelessly stalled, have new momentum after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEverytown plans ad blitz on anniversary of House background check bill Kentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Republicans expect Trump to pull controversial Fed nominee | Inside Judy Shelton's confirmation hearing | Trump extends emergency declaration at border Republicans expect Trump to withdraw controversial Fed nominee Pentagon transferring .8 billion to border wall MORE (R-Ala.) made personal appeals to President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE in recent days.

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“I had a really good session with the president, just the two of us, about a week ago about the options available to us when it comes to government spending over the next two years,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

“A negotiated agreement with the House Democrats is the best of three alternatives, the other two being arguing back and forth over the length of a [continuing resolution] for God only knows how long, or a sequester that hits defense with about a $71 billion cut at the end of the year,” he added.

Shelby said he delivered a similar message to Trump during a meeting Monday afternoon.

Acting White House budget director Russ Vought had signaled to congressional negotiators in April that the president would be willing to accept a yearlong stopgap measure in the absence of a spending deal. More recently, White House officials mulled a one-year deal instead of a two-year agreement.

“I’ve been to a lot of these meetings over the years — and I don’t want to be too forward-leaning in predicting an agreement, but it seems to me without exception everyone would like to [make one],” McConnell said Tuesday.

“The agreement would be a two-year caps deal, which would allow us to go forward” with the appropriations process, he added.

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McConnell’s optimism even surprised his Republican colleagues when he briefed them on the status of the talks during a closed-door lunch meeting.

“His normal way of operating is not to be overly optimistic, and he struck an optimistic tone,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoTrump hammers Manchin over impeachment vote Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle Democrat Richard Ojeda announces Senate bid after dropping out of presidential race MORE (R-W.Va.), a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Congress’s top four leaders — Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBloomberg faces criticism for tweet showing altered debate moment Trump knocks Democrats at rally: Bloomberg 'getting pounded' Biden earns endorsement from former House impeachment manager MORE (D-Calif.), McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation MORE (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTrump officially makes Richard Grenell acting intelligence chief Overnight Energy: Trump signs order to divert water to California farmers | EPA proposes new rollback to Obama coal ash rules | Green group ranks Bloomberg, Klobuchar last in climate plans Trump signs order diverting water to California farmers against state wishes MORE (R-Calif.) — met with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBloomberg proposes financial transaction tax GOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law On The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts MORE, acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyMulvaney calls out GOP for being 'a lot less interested' in deficits under Trump than Obama: report Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response MORE and Vought in Pelosi’s office Tuesday.

After meeting for more than two hours in the morning, they reconvened at 4:15 p.m.

McConnell had told reporters at lunchtime that negotiators hoped to clinch a deal by the end of the day, but the afternoon meeting broke up without a final agreement.

One potential sticking point is a disagreement over how much to increase funding levels for defense programs compared to nondefense domestic programs.

“There are still some significant issues outstanding, particularly the domestic-side spending issues — things like health care, infrastructure and things that average middle-class folks need,” Schumer said Tuesday afternoon.

Democrats later described the meetings in less optimistic terms than McConnell. They praised it as a good start but said there’s still a lot of work left to do.

“When President Trump shut down the government and our Republican friends went along with that, it didn’t serve them very well. So I think that’s what’s pushing them to a serious negotiation,” Schumer said.

GOP leaders in Congress see the chief benefit of a two-year deal as taking the prospect of another government shutdown off the table.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone Overnight Defense: Pentagon policy chief resigns at Trump's request | Trump wishes official 'well in his future endeavors' | Armed Services chair warns against Africa drawdown after trip GOP chairman after Africa trip: US military drawdown would have 'real and lasting negative consequences' MORE (R-S.C.) said removing the shutdown threat is “really big,” and that the prospect of passing a string of stopgap spending measures in the absence of a longer-term deal would be “devastating to the military.”

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Progressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa MORE (R-Iowa) said she had concerns about adding to the federal deficit but warned “the only other recourse is then continuing resolutions, which kill us all, and possible government shutdowns, which we don’t want to do.”

Fiscal hawks criticized the emerging deal as something that would further swell annual deficits.

“Any deal to increase spending caps without offsets should be a non-starter,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Extending last year’s budget-busting cap increases could add more than $2 trillion in debt over the next decade at a time when debt is already projected to rise to historic highs.”

A spending deal also would solve the politically uncomfortable problem of the federal government running out of borrowing authority later this year.

The Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” to extend federal borrowing authority since the government hit its debt limit in early March.

The deadline for addressing the debt ceiling is projected to fall in September or October. Analysts say that if the debt ceiling is not addressed by October, the government will default on its debt, a circumstance that would likely spark chaos in financial markets.

McConnell and Schumer both said Tuesday that raising the debt limit would be part of the spending deal.

The White House in April floated the idea of moving quickly on a debt-limit increase, even in the absence of a spending-caps deal, but now has signaled willingness to bundle the two items.

House Budget Committee Chairman John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthBudget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight On The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts MORE (D-Ky.), who was briefed on the meeting, said that as far as he knew, nobody was opposed to raising the debt ceiling.

“I know Mnuchin wants it, and we certainly want it,” he said, referring to inclusion of a debt-ceiling increase in a spending deal.

Negotiators are likely to settle on a numerical increase, as opposed to the previous practice of suspending the ceiling for a certain period of time, Yarmuth said.

He added that there seemed to be some consensus among negotiators about setting overall defense spending at $733 billion, $17 billion below the administration’s request. 

Trump had initially proposed keeping the statutory 2020 spending caps in place, which would have led to a roughly 12 percent cut in discretionary spending. 

But the president also proposed indirectly increasing defense spending by adding billions to a defense account that is not constrained by budget caps, bringing the defense total to $750 billion while slashing nondefense to $567 billion.

House Democrats set their own funding numbers for their spending bills — $733 billion for defense, $664 billion of which would be set under the statutory cap — and $639 billion for nondefense, with $631 billion of that amount falling under the cap.

Jordain Carney contributed.