Congress faces tough call next month on stopgap funding length

Democrats may push for final spending decisions next year; Republicans prefer a lame-duck wrapup

“If we have to have a continuing resolution, one to March would be best,” Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“If we have to have a continuing resolution, one to March would be best,” Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 25, 2020 at 2:00pm

Partisan tensions are set to color talks on how long the stopgap funding bill for federal agencies needed next month should run, on top of already fraught coronavirus aid discussions.

It’s a typical election-year question with major implications for government operations and stakeholders who depend on them: Will Congress punt decisions into a postelection lame-duck session, or opt for a lengthier continuing resolution that runs into perhaps March?

With a divided Congress, there’s no easy answer to that question. The emerging consensus view is Republicans favor a short-term patch, while Democrats may push for the longer-term punt.

“If we have to have a continuing resolution, one to March would be best,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said in an interview last week. He said he feared what an unpredictable President Donald Trump might do on government funding in a lame-duck session. “You’ve given me a nightmare question,” added Leahy.

Loading the player...

Observers of the process are already speculating Speaker Nancy Pelosi is laying plans for a March CR when lawmakers return after Labor Day. But her staff isn’t discussing it and final decisions don’t need to be made until probably the second week of September, these people said.

Republicans seem eager to paint Democrats as ready to abdicate their responsibilities if they opt for a lengthier stopgap. “We don’t know why Democrats would want to punt on doing their job for another six months,” a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly said.

If there’s agreement on a stopgap that expires after the election, Dec. 11 is a likely date, several veterans of the process say.

[Interest groups press Senate appropriators to allow livestream video]

Democrats argue, however, that Republicans haven’t done their job: The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t yet taken up a single fiscal 2021 spending bill. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the panel’s chairman, said before leaving Washington earlier this month he saw only a “slim” chance of doing so before the elections, with the two parties mired in a dispute over what amendments can be offered during markups.

The House has passed 10 of its 12 bills in two packages, although they were mostly partisan votes with White House veto threats hanging over them. Democrats wrote those bills with their favored policy provisions and added nearly $250 billion above budget caps agreed to for fiscal 2021 for pandemic relief measures.

Nine days to go

With only nine legislative days when both chambers are in session before the Sept. 30 funding deadline, there’s not much time for fighting. A messy government shutdown in the middle of a pandemic would result if they can’t pass a CR, which could reflect poorly on incumbents in both parties.

Lawmakers left Washington for the August recess facing a double-barreled September problem. On top of the lack of progress on regular spending bills, negotiations stalled on a new round of COVID-19 relief to patch up an economic recovery that’s on shaky ground with the lapse of key support from the $2 trillion March aid package.

[Virus aid talks break down as White House weighs unilateral action]

On Tuesday, American Airlines announced 19,000 job cuts effective Oct. 1 when pandemic relief is set to expire, coinciding with the stopgap deadline. Despite record-high stock prices, corporate CEOs are expressing concern about consumers’ ability to keep spending. A National Federation of Independent Business survey released Monday found 21 percent of small-business owners say they’ll likely go under if economic conditions don’t improve over the next six months.

It’s possible, of course, that nothing gets done on virus aid next month, which could change the calculation on how long to extend stopgap funding. The prospect of no further economic aid with Christmas around the corner might force lawmakers to come back to Washington after the elections.

But if coronavirus aid is resolved in some form next month, recent history appears to be on the side of punting the regular spending bills into the following calendar year. That’s what’s occurred during the last three presidential election years.

The obvious advantage for Democrats in putting off spending decisions until next year is that if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election and Democrats take control of the Senate, Democrats will have a stronger hand in rewriting the final fiscal 2021 spending bills early next year.

Matt Dennis, former communications director for House Appropriations Democrats, said he expects Democrats and some Republicans “might be concerned that a CR that only lasts until December would give a potential lame duck Trump the ability to cause a shutdown.”

In that case, Dennis said, “the safest course could be to take it into calendar year 2021 with enough runway for a potential Biden administration to get staffed up and settled before needing to get involved with appropriations negotiations.”

Republicans and Trump would prefer wrapping up fiscal 2021 appropriations bills before the end of the year when they are still in power. And if Trump wins and Republicans keep control of the Senate, there is still no advantage in putting off spending decisions until next year.

Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the center-right American Action Forum, said Republicans favor a shorter-term stopgap because, assuming Democrats win the White House and take control of the Senate, “that would give Republicans a last chance to exercise some discretion on fiscal policy before the next Congress.”

Funding uncertainty

Stopgaps typically continue spending into the next fiscal year at the previous year’s levels. Absent a new appropriations bill, and with full-year funding uncertain, it is difficult or impossible for federal agencies to start new projects, award contracts, hire or plan. The impact can be particularly adverse on the Pentagon.

Appropriators typically like to wrap up business before the next calendar year begins. It is hard enough to get annual appropriations bills passed in the year when they are supposed to be passed without the added aggravation of being delayed by the need to finish past year bills. But congressional leaders call the shots on how long stopgaps go.

Eight years ago offers some parallels to decisions facing policymakers this fall. Democratic President Barack Obama was in a tough reelection fight, Republicans controlled the House, and Democrats the Senate. The House had passed 11 of 12 appropriations bills; the Senate had passed five. The parties agreed in September 2012 to a stopgap that extended funding for all 12 bills until March 31, 2013.

House GOP conservatives saw a chance for deeper spending cuts the next year if Republicans won the White House and took control of the Senate. Democrats didn’t want to take a chance on a pre-election shutdown, and also preferred to remove another layer of economic uncertainty with the dreaded “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic spending cuts looming at the end of the year.

In 2016, the last year of Obama’s presidency, Republicans controlled both chambers and chose to hedge their bets. Congress passed an initial package in September that combined a full-year Military Construction-VA measure and an 11-bill stopgap that went to Dec. 9. After Trump won, Congress punted until the next year, extending the stopgap to April 28, 2017 to give the new administration a chance to weigh in.

In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, Democrats in control of Congress pushed final decisions off until the next year rather than engage in another veto fight over spending levels. Lawmakers passed a package in September extending stopgap funds for nine bills to March 6, 2009, plus final Defense, Military Construction-VA and Homeland Security bills. Their bet paid off, as Obama defeated Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the presidential race.

“There’s always a split view on lame duck strategy when one party believes they are going to consolidate power,” said Hazen Marshall, a former policy director for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Some argue for clearing the decks of underbrush policy so that they can work on big stuff early next year. Others argue for halting all work until they are in control.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.