Deal elusive on stopgap funding as deadline nears

Democrats and Republicans can't agree on how long the temporary spending bill should last

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., says negotiations are going pretty well, all things considered. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., says negotiations are going pretty well, all things considered. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2020 at 2:53pm

Despite the best efforts of top Capitol Hill and White House officials, drama is creeping back into negotiations over the stopgap spending bill needed to avert a partial government shutdown Oct. 1.

There's no agreement on how long the continuing resolution will extend current funding levels, for starters, while tricky policy issues like upcoming redistricting-related census deadlines remain unresolved.

What's more, there's even some talk among rank-and-file House Democrats about withholding their votes on the CR unless the House takes up coronavirus relief, despite a White House-leadership deal to keep the two issues separate.

It wasn't clear how much traction that push was gaining. But one Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was an option as nervous lawmakers seek to put pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cut a deal on virus aid, or at least give them something new to vote on before heading home to campaign.

[Census deadlines dispute hangs up stopgap funding talks]

Democrats and Republicans have less than 24 hours before a deadline negotiators have given themselves to produce an agreement. The House Rules Committee has already formally noticed a Monday meeting to discuss terms of floor debate, expected early in the week.

Republicans have sought a mid-December date for the continuing resolution, perhaps Dec. 18, which would ensure lawmakers get one more crack at wrapping up full-year fiscal 2021 spending bills. Democrats, fearing a potential lame duck President Donald Trump, want to punt the appropriations deadline into February.

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"They're wanting a different date than what we're doing," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters Thursday, adding that a December end-date was "nonnegotiable."

He suggested House Democrats might file their own version of stopgap legislation Friday if a deal isn't reached by then. There would still be time for a bipartisan deal, given the deadline isn't until Sept. 30, but the Senate might need to amend the House bill and force that chamber to vote again.

For now, Democrats appear to be giving bicameral talks more time. Evan Hollander, spokesman for House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said Democrats made an offer and are waiting to hear back from Shelby’s staff. "We hope we can reach a bipartisan, bicameral deal by tomorrow’s noon deadline," he said.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin agreed to draft a "clean" stopgap bill that would be free of potential add-on legislation that could bog down the measure. But the bill is still expected to carry less controversial items like extensions of expiring surface transportation programs and the National Flood Insurance Program, and possibly certain health care "extenders."

Shelby said Thursday that he hopes Democrats reduce some of the items they want to include. "I wish it were cleaner. We don't know what they're going to put in," he said. "I go back to the basic premise: The cleaner it is, the quicker it will be."

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior House appropriator, was upbeat about the talks in comments to reporters Thursday. "I don't think anybody wants to be responsible for shutting down government on the eve of an election in the middle of a pandemic, so it's a rare outbreak of common sense on both sides," he said.

Cole said his expectation was the eventual CR would be fairly clean and likely have a December expiration date. 

"So far, a very clean CR with anomalies that both sides agree to, common-sense stuff. So I think we'll get there pretty quick," Cole said. "The only disagreement I'm aware about, I think some people want to push this into February or March. I think we prefer December. I think that's where we'll end up."

Paul M. Krawzak, Lindsey McPherson and David Lerman contributed to his report.