Individual spending bill negotiators are attempting to resolve lingering disputes this week before kicking any final disagreements upstairs.
Subcommittee heads have until Friday to give Appropriations Committee leadership a list of the sticking points that must be settled to complete work on fiscal 2020 bills, lawmakers said Wednesday.
The deadline signaled a renewed intent to get a deal completed before the holiday recess instead of punting with another stopgap funding measure.
“We’re making progress,” said California Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard, who chairs the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “It’s slow, but at least we’re moving forward.”
The push comes amid growing doubts that Congress will have enough time to complete fiscal 2020 appropriations before current funding runs dry on Dec. 20.
And the task could be complicated by an insistence from House Democrats that negotiators reach agreement on all 12 spending bills before taking any to the floor for votes. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby expressed doubts about such a strategy Tuesday, saying finalizing all 12 bills would be a “monumental task.”
The Alabama Republican said he spoke by phone Wednesday morning with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom the White House has deputized as a liaison to lawmakers for spending talks. He reiterated that completing work this month would be a “big lift.”
“There’s got to be some big things, big changes to do that,” Shelby said.
But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey on Wednesday declined to speculate about another stopgap measure, saying negotiations on a final spending deal are going well.
“It’s $1.3 trillion, so there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s moving efficiently,” the New York Democrat said. “I hope we will be able to conclude our work before people go home and have family time.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Lowey reported during Wednesday’s meeting of committee leaders, which he hosts weekly, that she’s “cautiously optimistic” about getting the dozen bills finished before Dec. 20. “I don’t want to contemplate having bills pushed over [into 2020] because we can’t get agreement,” Hoyer told reporters.
Although Hoyer wants all 12 appropriations bills done, he said he does not plan to move them as a giant omnibus package.
“The president indicated he doesn’t want to sign another omnibus, so we’re not going to test him on that,” the Maryland Democrat said. He said the 12 bills will be broken down into two or more packages, but he wasn’t sure yet what those packages would look like.
That work begins with each subcommittee figuring out which issues can be settled and which will demand attention from top committee leadership. “We’re trying to get as much resolved as we can before it has to move up the chain,” said Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Even if subcommittee leaders meet their Friday deadline, it’s still unclear how the major hang-ups, such as border wall funding, can be resolved. In addition to limiting new spending for the wall project, Democrats have been seeking to block the Trump administration from using transfer authorities to move existing Pentagon funds to wall construction.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said negotiations are “stalled” because of Democrats’ demands to insert what he called “poison pills” into the talks, despite a side agreement to July’s budget caps deal.
“Even though they put that in writing, they’ve chosen to shoehorn partisan demands right back into the process. So we’re stalled,” the Kentucky Republican said. “We’re stalled because the agreement that we all reached over the summer has not been honored by the other side.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the hang-up was due to White House insistence on resolving border wall funding before signing any spending bills. “It is in all of our interest to keep the president away from the appropriations process and avoid another Trump shutdown before Christmas,” the New York Democrat said.
The White House position in the negotiations is that President Donald Trump specifically won’t sign any nondefense appropriations bill until wall funding and other issues are resolved in the Homeland Security measure, a senior administration official said.
The administration requested $8.6 billion in fiscal 2020 for the wall project, as well as $3.6 billion more to restore military base funding that was transferred to wall construction accounts. Sen. John Boozman, who chairs the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee, said negotiations on his bill are far along, except for how to deal with the “backfilled” military construction funds.
“That’s something that’ll be settled higher up at the leadership level,” the Arkansas Republican said. “All the other stuff is pretty much done. … We’re 99.9 percent done.”
Coal miner pensions
McConnell, like other coal state lawmakers, has another reason to get a spending package done before the end of the year: the looming insolvency of the major pension plan for retired mine workers, as well as their expected loss of health insurance benefits.
West Virginia Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, and Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, who are both appropriators, said Wednesday that legislation to restore miners’ benefits will likely be attached to a bigger vehicle, such as appropriations.
“We want it to pass by the end of the year, and we’re working hard to make that happen, so we’re looking at every vehicle possible,” Capito said. “It wouldn’t be a singular bill.”
Manchin said that if the pension bill isn’t included in a year-end package, lawmakers won’t leave for the holiday break.
“We’re doing everything we can. If not, we’re not leaving here on the 20th,” he said. “I’m going to attach anywhere and everywhere I can.”
Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesnieswki and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.