Lawmakers a step closer to averting Dec. 11 government shutdown

Agreement on topline numbers lets spending panels start hammering out agency-by-agency budget agreements ahead of Dec. 11 deadline

From left, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 24, 2020 at 5:50pm

Top appropriators reached bipartisan agreement Tuesday on a framework for an omnibus spending package that would avoid a partial government shutdown next month.

The compromise forged between the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees sets spending allocations for the dozen bills that fund federal agencies for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. A deal on those allocations will allow lawmakers to draft omnibus legislation that is needed by Dec. 11, when current stopgap funding is set to run dry.

The agreement, which was confirmed by aides familiar with the talks, resolves a partisan impasse over how to divvy up about $1.4 trillion  in discretionary spending for fiscal 2021 that is allowed under a two-year budget deal. Details of the actual compromise spending allocations, which are typically kept confidential until legislation is released, weren't immediately available.

The House version of fiscal 2021 spending bills, released in July, and the Senate appropriations measures, released this month, have different allocations. Democrats opted to put more funding toward the departments of Veterans Affairs, Interior, EPA, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, while Republicans proposed more funding for Defense, Homeland Security, Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Those differences weren’t all that great in dollar terms. And after accounting for spending that is already exempt from budget caps, such as overseas military operations, most agencies are in line for at least small increases over the prior fiscal year’s levels.

But the House bills also included about $233 billion in emergency spending for the COVID-19 pandemic that is not part of the Senate bills. Senate Republicans had balked at combining pandemic relief with regular annual appropriations. It wasn't immediately clear whether there was any accommodation for coronavirus relief funding on top of the regular compromise subcommittee allocations.

Veterans health care spat

Hopes for completing the deal by last week were dashed after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continued to object to exempting $12.5 billion in veterans health care money from the budget caps. That money pays for a program giving veterans access to private medical care outside the VA system when wait times are too long or veterans live too far away from VA facilities.

McCarthy has said exempting the program violates the two-year budget deal, while House Democrats and Senate Republicans favored the exemption to free up more money for other nondefense programs. Overall nondefense accounts would see increases greater than 2 percent on average for the budget year that began Oct. 1, as opposed to a less than 0.5 percent boost without the veterans health care carve-out.

Details of how the veterans cap exemption would be treated in the final bargaining weren't immediately clear, though sources have said they expect an emergency classification to remain given both House Democrats and Senate Republicans previously agreed.

The White House in the past registered objections to the emergency adjustment, but sources familiar with the talks said the veterans exemption didn't rise to deal-breaker status for administration officials.

Even with an allocations deal in place, however, there is no guarantee that a bipartisan omnibus package can be written and passed in less than the three weeks remaining before current funding expires. Differences in funding levels between the House and Senate masked an array of partisan policy disputes that will still need to be resolved for an omnibus deal to come together.

Chief among them is funding for a border wall sought by President Donald Trump and opposed by Democrats. The wall is one of the signature policy demands the Trump White House has pushed over the last four years, and it is unlikely Trump will sign a bill that does not include new construction money.

The Senate's draft fiscal 2021 Homeland Security bill would provide the $2 billion requested by the White House. The House version provides no funds for the wall, and would rescind $1.375 billion provided in fiscal 2020 for wall construction.

Democrats could be emboldened by the election results to deny Trump the money he wants on his way out the door.

And even if an omnibus reaches Trump’s desk, there is no guarantee he will sign the package. When Trump signed a fiscal 2018 omnibus two years ago, he vowed never to sign a similar measure again.

“I’m not going to do it again,” the president said at a signing ceremony. “Nobody read it.  It’s only hours old.  Some people don’t even know what is in — $1.3 trillion — it’s the second largest ever.”

Paul M. Krawzak and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.