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 TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election 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 CornynGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments 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 ThuneGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Hillicon Valley: Twitter shares more details on political ad rules | Supreme Court takes up Google-Oracle fight | Pentagon chief defends Microsoft cloud contract House, Senate announce agreement on anti-robocall bill 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 LoweyOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Lawmakers aim for agreement on top-line spending by next week White House prepared to support December CR MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Lawmakers aim for agreement on top-line spending by next week 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 HoyerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Former Ukraine envoy offers dramatic testimony Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing 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 ColeNew hemp trade group presses lawmakers on immigration reform, regs Bottom Line Juan Williams: Republicans flee Trump 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action 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 MeadowsDemocrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing House Republicans call impeachment hearing 'boring,' dismiss Taylor testimony as hearsay Key takeaways from first public impeachment hearing MORE (R-N.C.).