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 ShelbyHouse pushes back schedule to pass spending bills Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump 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 TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters 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 DeLauroThe coronavirus crisis has cut the child care sector COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Lack of child care poses major hurdle as businesses reopen MORE (D-Conn.), a top House appropriator, raised those concerns in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueJustice Department investigating meat price increases: report 11,000 coronavirus cases tied to three meat processors: report The looming USDA deadline to guarantee access to school meals 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 McConnellOvernight Energy: US Park Police say 'tear gas' statements were 'mistake' | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump juggles three crises ahead of November election Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSheldon Whitehouse leads Democrats into battle against Trump judiciary GOP lawmaker calls on Senate to confirm Michael Pack as head of US media agency McConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters 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 Mnuchin The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Association of American Railroads Ian Jefferies says no place for hate, racism or bigotry in rail industry or society; Trump declares victory in response to promising jobs report Trump signs bill giving businesses more time to spend coronavirus loans The Hill's Coronavirus Report: BIO's Michelle McMurry-Heath says 400 projects started in 16 weeks in biotech firms to fight virus, pandemic unemployment total tops 43 million 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.