Congress faces major hurdles to spending deal

Congress faces major hurdles to spending deal
© Greg Nash

Senators broke a months-long stalemate over funding the government on Tuesday by starting work on a package of four spending bills, but major hurdles remain to avoid a shutdown next month. 

House and Senate lawmakers are stuck over issues related to a mammoth defense bill and GOP demands for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE’s border wall.

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The divisions are raising the prospect of another continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government operating once the current one runs out on Nov. 21. 

“I understand now they’re talking about an additional CR taking us into December,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Republicans uncomfortably playing defense Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.), told reporters Tuesday. 

The package advanced in the Senate on Tuesday includes the funding measures for agriculture; interior; commerce, justice and science; and transportation and housing and urban development — four largely noncontroversial bills. 

If it passes, the Senate will have passed four of the 12 fiscal 2020 government funding bills. Senators in both parties say they are optimistic the package will pass. The House, by comparison, has passed 10.

Republicans are hoping that this week’s votes could help end the logjam over funding the government. 

“Hopefully the Democrats will play ball and we can actually get the appropriations process moving,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Trump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. 

McConnell added that “hopefully the ice is breaking on the Democratic side.”

At the heart of the disagreement is a stalemate over top-line spending figures for each of the 12 bills.

The leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHelping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts MORE (R-Ala.), have sent offers back and forth in recent weeks but have yet to reach a deal.

Shelby signaled that he was focused on trying to get the first round of spending bills through the chamber. 

“If we’re successful in passing these bills, getting toward a conference, that would be the prime time to start talking,” he said.

Lowey insisted a deal on the top-line numbers, known as 302(b)s, was necessary before any bills could be finalized. 

“Let them do those bills, and hopefully we can move the process forward, but we still don’t have 302(b)s,” she said. “You have to know where you go and what your budget is.”

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire MORE (D-Md.) also said the House and Senate needed the deal to move forward.

“We do not have, yet, a 302(b) allocation, so we do not know what the compromise is or what the agreement will be between the parties as to how much the labor-health bill will get, the defense bill will get, the other 10 bills will get in terms of their allocation,” he said. “That is a critical factor to know before we consider appropriations.”

Republicans such as Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert House panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds MORE (Okla.), an appropriator, said the focus on the 302(b)s made sense given the political standoff. Cole said he would personally support addressing the noncontroversial bills, “but count me as skeptical that either side is going to let bargaining chips go until we reach a larger settlement.”

Senate Democrats fumed after Republicans forced 302(b) allocations through committee that they argued provided additional funds for the Department of Homeland Security  bill. 

They’ve also balked over supporting the Senate panel’s defense bill after Republicans rejected an amendment that would have restricted the president’s ability to redirect military funding toward the border wall without congressional approval.

The disagreement will come to a head as soon as this week. McConnell has teed up a second spending package, which will include the defense bill, for consideration after the domestic spending package.

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Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump backs plan to give airlines another billion in aid MORE (D-N.Y.) has pledged that Democrats will keep the Pentagon spending bill from getting the 60 votes needed to advance. In addition to the defense bill, Schumer says the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services and military construction bills are all currently stuck in limbo. 

“If Republicans are willing to engage with us on the 302(b)s, we get negotiations back on track for funding the government,” he said. 

Shelby acknowledged the standstill over the defense bill. He also wouldn’t commit to releasing the text of the military construction and veterans affairs bill, which is considered controversial because it is expected to backfill $3.6 billion in funding previously directed toward the wall as part of Trump’s emergency declaration. 

But he noted that McConnell is open to moving another package of noncontroversial bills if senators are able to make progress this week. In addition to the package being voted on this week, four other bills also passed the committee with bipartisan support, making them ripe for floor consideration. 

Lawmakers have 22 legislative days between now and the deadline to reach a deal, but the impeachment inquiry shadowing everything that Congress does won’t make matters easy.

“It will impact and shape everything, at least through that vote, if not after,” said Cole.

Some believe the battle between Democrats and Trump will poison any chance of a deal on spending bills.

“There aren’t going to be any appropriations bills. CR,” predicted Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE (R-N.C.).