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Lawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills

Lawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills
© Greg Nash

Efforts to fund the government hit multiple stumbling blocks on Wednesday, inching lawmakers closer to a potential shutdown.

Most lawmakers don’t think the standoff will reach the point of a government closure, but with just eight working days to come up with a plan to avoid the second shutdown of the year, they are running out of time. 

The two main efforts to keep the government operating have both run into roadblocks, escalating the partisan standoff and increasing the odds, at least, of a closure.

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“We’re trying to find a path forward, a way to go,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Trump, Pelosi barrel toward final border wall showdown On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds MORE (R-Ala.) said Wednesday. “I think we’re talking to each other, but I don’t know if either one is listening.” 

To keep the government running, Congress needs to either approve this fiscal year’s spending bills by the end of the month or approve a stopgap funding measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), that would run through Nov. 21.

The stopgap would give Republicans and Democrats time to work out differences on the larger measures. 

Democrats had put the short-term bill on the House Rules Committee agenda for Tuesday, but they yanked the legislation amid eleventh hour fights on health care and trade. 

The measure was placed back on the calendar for a vote on Thursday, however, indicating Democrats hope to pass it before leaving town this week.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats blocked a bill to fund most of the federal government on Wednesday. Sixty votes were needed to advance the legislation, which would have funded the Pentagon and other agencies. 

In the House, the final sticking point for a CR, according to a House Democratic aide, had been an effort by Democrats to include language in the bill meant to study on a state-by-state basis whether groups getting farm aid from the government were actually being injured by foreign tariffs. Farmers have seen their products hit be tariffs as a result of retaliatory action to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE’s trade war.

The bill placed on the calendar for Thursday has this study in it.

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Democrats are also worried the aid is going to large corporations and even foreign firms rather than the family farmers as advertised by the administration.

Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations DeLauro racks up labor endorsements for Appropriations gavel MORE (D-Conn.), a top House appropriator, raised those concerns in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects Federal judge strikes down Trump's cuts on food stamps for unemployed MORE. 

“I understand that JBS, which is the subsidiary of a foreign company, got $90 million. That’s some cronies of the president. Let’s be transparent,” she said, referencing the Brazilian-owned food processing company. “Farmers deserve the aid, not big agribusiness.”

In the Senate, the failure to advance the legislation on Wednesday is just the latest setback for leaders who have repeatedly seen their talks derailed because of fights over Trump’s border wall, the issue that triggered the government shutdown at the beginning of the year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report MORE (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of sinking spending for the Pentagon over the border battle, including by insisting on “poison pills” that would prevent a larger deal on defense spending from being made.

“We’ve seen our Democratic colleagues suggest that they may try to shoehorn their long-standing disagreements with President Trump into this appropriations process even though we all agreed not to insist on poison pills,” McConnell said. 

Democrats say Republicans knew they would block a defense spending bill that included money for Trump’s wall, and that the GOP was eager to couple the issues to make Democrats look bad by going on the record against the defense bill. McConnell used a similar tactic in 2016 when Democrats blocked the defense bill to try to force a budget deal. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) accused McConnell on Wednesday of moving forward with a “ruse” to appease Trump.

“The fact that Leader McConnell has scheduled this vote, knowing it would fail, makes it nothing more than a partisan stunt,” Schumer said of Democrats blocking the measure on Wednesday. 

The path forward won’t get easier. Senators still have to work out the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bill and move military construction funding, which is considered controversial because Republicans want to include money to replace $3.6 billion redirected toward the wall. 

If the Senate isn’t able to get its fiscal 2020 bills moving, senators warned they could be headed toward a yearlong continuing resolution, which the Pentagon has warned could have consequences for the military. 

“This is going to be an arduous process,” Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said. “I’m not going to faint dead away if we end up with a CR for the whole year.” 

Senate Republicans haven’t yet signaled if they will back the House stopgap without demanding additional changes. Shelby hinted there were outstanding issues aside from trade, saying “there are other things.” 

Asked about House Democrats’ claim that things are down to one sticking point, Shelby quipped, “That would be miraculous.” 

Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, declined to say if Trump would sign a short-term bill, noting that the administration had yet to see it. But he did describe the White House as “optimistic.” 

Ueland indicated that the administration would prefer Congress pass fiscal 2020 funding bills instead of a full-year resolution — an idea previously floated by Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience On The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed MORE

“We’re hopeful that the bills will be able to move out on the Senate floor and ultimately go to conference and emerge in a format the president can sign,” he said. 

The White House previously sent a 21-page list of requested “anomalies,” or changes to fiscal 2019 spending levels that it wants included in the stopgap.