Congress hunts for offramp from looming shutdown fight

Lawmakers are looking for an offramp from a stalemate over how to prevent a shutdown fight in the coming weeks. 

Congress reset the clock Thursday by passing a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through Nov. 21, buying themselves an extra eight weeks to negotiate a longer-term spending deal.

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But the step forward belies larger troubles about how to fund the government from late November through Sept. 30, 2020. Congress and the White House have failed to settle on a plan that could pass both chambers and forestall a looming fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE’s border wall. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyLawmakers strike spending deal to avert shutdown McConnell accuses Democrats of stonewalling funding talks with wall demands  On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday MORE (R-Ala.) is set to meet with Trump at the White House on Friday, as they try to figure out a way to get funding bills to the president’s desk. 

“My message is a discussion about where we are, and how we can move these bills with his help,” Shelby said when asked about his pitch for the meeting. “It could be very pivotal, or it could be no progress.”

The White House huddle comes as the fiscal 2020 funding talks struggle to get off the ground. While the House has passed 10 of the 12 annual appropriations bills, many of those are loaded up with Democratic priorities that make them dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump McConnell says he'll be in 'total coordination' with White House on impeachment trial strategy MORE (R-Ky.) and his Republican colleagues have failed to pass any of their funding bills, due in part to some Democratic roadblocks.

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Senate Democrats are fuming after Republicans pushed top-line spending numbers for the 12 bills through the Appropriations Committee on party lines, and appropriated $12 billion toward Trump's border wall.

That includes $5 billion in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bill, $3.6 billion in reprogramming in the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill and an additional $3.6 billion to “back fill” the military construction money shifted toward the wall as part of Trump’s emergency declaration.

The Senate's $5 billion for the wall is in stark contrast to the DHS bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee, a measure that would not provide additional barrier funding.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? MORE (D-N.Y.) acknowledged that the CR was the “easy part” of funding the government. 

“The hard part is getting the bipartisan appropriations process back on track here in the Senate,” he said. “It’s time for Leader McConnell, Chairman Shelby and our Republican colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to sit down with Democrats and get a bipartisan process moving again.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed 10 of the 12 funding bills, teeing up potential legislation for floor action. Shelby and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHorowitz offers troubling picture of FBI's Trump campaign probe Horowitz: 'We found no bias' in decision to open probe Horowitz: 'Very concerned' about FBI leaks to Giuliani MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations panel, are urging leaders to move the noncontroversial bills even without a deal to resolve the stalemates on Defense and DHS.

“I like that, Sen. Leahy and Schumer both have indicated they would do this,” Shelby said. “I see no reason that we couldn’t move some of these bills.”

It’s unclear if McConnell is on board with the strategy. Spokesmen for the GOP leader didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Republicans view the defense bill as a top priority, and letting other bills move forward could lessen the GOP’s leverage to force Democrats to the table on Pentagon spending.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst on trade deal Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the Appropriations Committee, said the best plan was to move the bills covering the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education, and whatever other bills could be folded in.

“I still think what the chairman wants to do and what we should do is move the Defense bill, the Labor-H bill and as many other things as we can put with it and try to do that between now and Nov. 21,” he said. 

Asked if McConnell didn’t seem optimistic about putting noncontroversial bills on the floor, Shelby said he couldn't yet tell and warned that “politics are involved.” Leahy noted that he had pitched McConnell on the strategy. But pressed how he responded, Leahy rolled his eyes and made a noncommittal noise.

“That’s a decision he has to make, but I think every Republican, every Democrat I’ve talked to says let’s bring them up,” he said of the noncontroversial bills.

Staffers on the Senate and House Appropriations committees have also started, in the words of Shelby, “serious” negotiations about how to jump-start the fiscal 2020 spending bills. Even if the Senate is able to get its own spending legislation moving, the House and Senate will need to reconcile their competing bills and work out differences on top-line spending.

A House Democratic aide confirmed that staff have been talking, but characterized the talks as “preliminary,” suggesting lawmakers are far from a deal to avoid another shutdown fight days before Thanksgiving.

“There have been preliminary staff-level discussions on priorities for each side and how best to proceed with talks. There have been no negotiations on individual appropriations bills,” the aide said.

Some senators have started reaching out individually to their House counterparts in an effort to start laying the groundwork in case there is a deal. 

Blunt met with Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerICE emerges as stumbling block in government funding talks Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Texas) to try to talk about a potential path on spending talks ahead of an upcoming two-week recess. 

“I hope what we can do is agree to [top-line numbers] with the House … and then I think if we get that done this is a pretty fast process,” he said. “I hope no later than the end of the two-week break and the earlier the better.”