Congress

House pushes ‘dozen bills or none’ approach to spending talks

GOP senators express doubts as House leaders insist on finalizing appropriations by Dec. 20

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby says he doubts that all 12 overdue spending bills for the current fiscal year could be finalized before the Dec. 20 deadline. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democratic leaders are insisting that all 12 overdue spending bills for the current fiscal year must be finalized before any of them can reach the floor, according to sources familiar with strategy talks.

The demand for some kind of grand bargain could complicate hopes for completion of at least a portion of fiscal 2020 appropriations before stopgap funding runs dry on Dec. 20 and Congress adjourns for the winter holidays. 

“We want agreement on all the bills before we start passing minibuses,” a House Democratic leadership aide said. “That is the best way to avoid a shutdown.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Tuesday that he doubts all 12 bills could be finalized before the Dec. 20 deadline. “That would be a monumental achievement to do that, and it would be hard,” the Alabama Republican said.

Underlying the procedural spat is a partisan struggle to gain leverage in final negotiations on spending priorities for the fiscal year that is already more than two months old. Senate Democrats have blocked a Defense spending bill from coming to a floor vote, for example, partly because of the border wall fight and partly because they are leery of passing a top Republican priority before winning assurances for some nondefense spending measures.

[Senate holds off on vote avoiding shutdown, keeps stopgap funding vehicle]

“The Republicans have an appetite for the military and the Department of Defense,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “We want to make sure it’s balanced and includes other bills,” including the Labor-HHS-Education bill, Durbin said of Democrats.

Even if lawmakers could finalize all 12 bills, it’s not clear they would have enough time to get them all written and passed by the Dec. 20 deadline. While year-end spending deals are sometimes packaged into a single omnibus measure, President Donald Trump has vowed never to sign another $1 trillion-plus omnibus that gets little scrutiny because of the time crunch.

Smaller bites

Appropriators have talked about passing final bills in smaller bundles, thereby avoiding the dreaded omnibus. But even that approach could take considerable time if Congress intends to encompass all 12 bills within the next three weeks. And if that task proves too burdensome, it’s now not clear, given the demand of House Democrats, whether Congress would get any of the measures passed this month or if it would have to resort to another stopgap continuing resolution that simply extends current funding levels to avoid a government shutdown.

While most lawmakers have said they oppose a full-year continuing resolution, approving another short-term one that extends funding into next February or March comes with its own set of problems. The Senate could be bogged down with an impeachment trial early next year if the House votes to impeach Trump this month. And the rising partisan tensions over impeachment could make it harder to resolve final spending bills by then.

“If we don’t work something out toward the end of this week or the next 10 days after that … I think it’s inevitable we’re going to get a CR,” Shelby said, referring to a continuing resolution. “We’re probably going to get on past maybe January and go from there.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the larger spending bills like his need to be completed this week to have any chance of getting passed before the recess. “If we take more than the rest of this week, it gets hard for bigger bills to get done,” the Missouri Republican said.

Yet the Labor-HHS bill faces its own partisan policy disputes that could derail a final compromise. House Democrats, for instance, have insisted on providing $50 million for gun violence research, a move that has troubled Republicans who see it as an effort toward future gun control. “When you start talking about guns and the Second Amendment gets involved, then you get polarization up here,” Shelby said.

The procedural squabble is only the latest setback to an appropriations process that has been stymied for months and already required two stopgap measures to avoid a shutdown. Congressional leaders thought they had cleared a major hurdle in the summer when they passed a bipartisan budget deal that raised the limits on discretionary spending to make them more politically palatable to both parties.

[Two-year budget pact clears Senate, ending fiscal 2020 impasse]

And over the Thanksgiving recess, appropriators reached a deal on how to divvy up the year’s $1.37 trillion in discretionary spending among all 12 bills. But a time crunch, and lack of agreement on specific policy measures, continue to threaten passage of a year-end spending package.

Among the biggest perennial issues: What to do about the border wall spending Trump wants. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters Tuesday that “the unknown quantity here” is Trump, whom he said “has repeatedly thrown wrenches into the gears.”

“The question is, will cooler heads prevail on him?” the New York Democrat said.

Schumer said Monday that Democrats have their own list of demands in any year-end spending deal, including more money for infrastructure, child care and to combat the spread of opioids.

Shelby appeared pessimistic about the state of the talks on Tuesday.

“For us to reach an agreement, we're going to have to give some things and the Democrats are going to have to give some things. And I thought this would happen Sunday. Today is Tuesday, and it looks like we're going further apart,” he said, adding that “it's not looking good right now.”

Clearing away the brush

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito said Tuesday that negotiators are moving closer on wall funding. “We’re each moving. I’ll put it that way,” the West Virginia Republican said. Her Democratic counterpart, Jon Tester of Montana, said the two parties traded offers over the weekend.

Capito said the White House has not been especially involved in subcommittee talks. She also doesn’t expect the DHS bill will be in the first package of spending measures to clear Congress.

“But I haven’t heard if that’s something that the White House is wanting to do or not. But I don’t expect it to be,” she said.

Other subcommittees have been busy as well prepping their bills for the moment they get the green light from leadership to move on them.

Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander expects that he and his counterparts can finish negotiations on the fiscal 2020 spending bill in time for it to be included in the December spending package. 

“Our goal is to try to finish our work this week,” the Tennessee Republican said. 

Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Kennedy said he and his counterparts plan to meet Wednesday to try to resolve the outstanding issues in their bill.

“We’ve cleared away a lot of the brush,” the Louisiana Republican said Tuesday. “And tomorrow we’ll sit down and try to work out the final issues. Those that we can’t work out, we’ll send upstairs, but my attitude is that I will make it work.”

Kennedy said he would like to finish work on the bill this week, but hadn’t heard anything about sequencing or packaging of the spending bills. “I’ve heard all sorts of rumors but they are just that,” he said.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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