Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate

Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate
© Greg Nash

Top negotiators are set to meet Tuesday to try to break a stalemate over funding the government. 

Congress has until Nov. 21 to prevent the second shutdown of the year after a 35-day partial closure that ended in February. They’re eyeing another stopgap bill to give appropriators more time, sources told The Hill on Monday, with a potential end date between Dec. 13 and Dec. 20. 

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The likelihood that lawmakers punt comes as they remain stuck over major details in the fiscal 2020 bills, including top-line figures known as 302(b)s and money for President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE’s border wall. 

Lawmakers hope getting the top members of the House and Senate appropriations committees in a room together will pave the way for an agreement. 

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.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyJulián Castro launches PAC to support progressive candidates Lawmakers call on VA to remove swastikas from headstones in veterans cemeteries House Democrats object to Trump sending ventilators to Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) will meet Tuesday. Their respective ranking members, Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  MORE (D-Vt.) and Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerSpace dominance by way of Texas Lawmakers call on VA to remove swastikas from headstones in veterans cemeteries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the APTA - A huge night for Joe Biden MORE (R-Texas), had been expected to attend but a Democratic aide said Monday that due to scheduling conflicts it will just be Shelby and Lowey. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Washington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill MORE (Mo.), a member of Republican leadership and the Appropriations Committee, said the panel’s leaders have the power to make a deal on top-line figures and once they do the rest of the funding talks “go fairly quick.” 

“One meeting could certainly direct the staff to decide this in a day at the most,” he added. 

They have a track record of being able to untangle sticky funding fights, including the deal that ended the partial government shutdown in February. 

“I’d just like to get it wrapped up. If our respective caucuses said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys work it out,’ we’d have something done in a matter of hours,” Leahy said. 

But the group also needs buy-in from leadership in both parties and Trump, who is seen as the wild card in the fight. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes bill to give flexibility for small business coronavirus aid program On The Money: GOP turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks | Millions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks | Senate votes to give coronavirus relief program more flexibility Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill MORE (R-Ky.) and House Democratic leadership have indicated they want to wrap up the fiscal 2020 bills by the end of the year. 

Shelby pointed to the wall funding and the disagreement over 302(b) figures, which set the top line for each of the 12 2020 spending bills, as the major hurdles to a deal. 

“We’re going in with open eyes and try to assess where we are and how do we get to yes,” Shelby said. “There’s a time to fight, but right now we ought to fight to get our appropriations bills.” 

The meeting between the top appropriators comes after a flurry of talks during the past week. Shelby met last week with McConnell and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland to discuss government funding. 

“We talked about getting serious in trying to get the president and the Speaker involved and let’s move off the dime on approps,” Shelby said about his discussions with McConnell. 

He added that if Trump and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi scoffs at comparison between Trump and Churchill: 'I think they're hallucinating' Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Pelosi joins protests against George Floyd's death outside Capitol MORE (D-Calif.) “come together again we’ll move our bills. If they don’t, we’re going to be drifting.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' MORE (D-N.Y.) also said late last week that he had been talking with McConnell, Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Top GOP lawmakers invite Blue Dogs to meet with China Task Force Top GOP lawmakers invite Blue Dogs to meet with China Task Force over coronavirus probe MORE (R-Calif.) about how to fund the government and that there were “positive signs.” 

“Both parties, both sides, Democrat, Republican, House and Senate appropriators, have started talking again about restarting the good-faith negotiations on the remaining bills,” Schumer said during a floor speech. 

The Senate has passed a package of four appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 

But Democrats blocked a second package that included a mammoth defense bill. House Democrats have also indicated they won’t go to conference to negotiate a final deal on the four-bill package until they’ve reached an agreement on fiscal 2020 funding in its totality. 

“Over the summer, the Speaker of the House and my colleague, the Democratic leader, both signed on to a bipartisan, bicameral budget deal that Democrats hammered out with President Trump’s team in order to avoid exactly, exactly the kind of partisan stalemate that we’re now experiencing,” McConnell said last week from the Senate floor. 

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Shelby, asked if McConnell won’t bring additional spending bills to the floor without a larger deal on the top-line figures, said, “That’s my understanding at the moment.” 

Congress still needs to pass each of the 12 fiscal 2020 appropriations bills after using a stopgap continuing resolution to fund the government until Nov. 21. They’re expected to pass a second stopgap bill. A senior Democratic aide told The Hill on Monday that the stop date for that bill could be as late as Dec. 20, putting it in the same time frame as a potential House impeachment vote. 

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Hoyer wins Maryland House primary Hoyer: Gassing of protestors 'worthy' of Trump censure MORE (D-Md.) said the House will vote on the stopgap bill next week. 

“This action will, unfortunately, be necessary to keep the government open as we work toward an agreement on 302(b) allocations, which will allow us to move appropriations bills that are in line with the bipartisan budget caps agreement,” Hoyer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to the House Democratic caucus. 

With Congress expected to be out of town the week of Thanksgiving, that would give lawmakers an extra three weeks in session to come together on a larger fiscal 2020 deal. 

“I think if we can get this done this year, we should make every possible effort to get it done this year,” Blunt said. 

Pressed if the extra three weeks was enough time, he added: “It’s not that. It’s how much time there is between now and Dec. 13. We should not be putting this off.”