Appropriations talks rejuvenated as possible shutdown looms

Meetings are a sign policymakers are seeking common ground and ways to avoid another government shutdown

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) talks with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) at the Capitol on October 24, 2019. Schumer said Wednesday the White House, Senate and House met to hopefully kick-start spending talks. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Top aides to House and Senate appropriators, leadership from both parties and White House officials met Tuesday to try to kick-start spending talks, a sign that policymakers are seeking common ground and ways to avoid another government shutdown despite impeachment politics.

Dozens of policy disputes and thus-far intractable differences on subcommittee allocations between the chambers have held up progress. The House spending bills, written before the bipartisan budget deal in July that set final fiscal 2020 spending caps, are nearly $20 billion above the Senate’s for nondefense programs, for instance.

[Impeachment on collision course with possible shutdown]

But Tuesday’s meeting made some headway, according to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

“I believe there was a meeting yesterday and, I think, some progress was made. Let’s continue moving in that direction,” Schumer said Wednesday on the floor. He added that “the best way to avoid another shutdown would be for the president to keep out of the appropriations process and for Republicans to stop the games and get serious about negotiating in a bipartisan way.”

Schumer on Tuesday suggested that President Donald Trump might prefer a shutdown as a “diversion” to take attention away from the impeachment proceedings. A White House official said Trump is intent on avoiding a shutdown, however. And the presence of administration officials at Tuesday’s meeting may indicate some willingness to compromise.

With only about two full weeks when both chambers are in session left before current stopgap funding lapses on Nov. 21, the immediate focus has turned to the appropriate length of the next continuing resolution.

Congressional leaders are backing a stopgap extending into December, eyeing a year-end wrapup. But top appropriators of both parties don’t appear to be on the same page, expressing concern about impeachment obstructing progress on ironing out spending disputes.

House Appropriations Democrats have pushed for a CR into early February, according to an aide, which would take some of the heat off of spending issues while the impeachment process plays out. It would also give lawmakers more time to reach compromises on the dozen fiscal 2020 appropriations bills, none of which have yet become law a month into the new fiscal year. 

That timeline matches up roughly with what Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has floated previously.

But sources familiar with the talks said Senate GOP and House Democratic leaders prefer a stopgap ending in December, keeping the pressure on to wrap up the year’s business before that chamber’s likely impeachment trial starts in earnest. A senior Democratic aide said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday about finishing up spending bills by the end of 2019.

“My preference is we get this done before the end of the calendar year,” Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday. “We should’ve gotten it done by the end of the fiscal year but certainly we ought to get it done by the end of the year.”

A GOP aide said pushing the deadline to February increases the odds that Congress defaults to a yearlong stopgap at fiscal 2019 spending levels, which would be about $50 billion lower than the budget deal allows for fiscal 2020. A February deadline is also well into the fiscal year and in the midst of a presidential election, when it will be harder to agree on bills after a divisive impeachment effort, the aide said.

Shelby said Wednesday that he still thinks a CR running into February or even March is a “pretty realistic assessment” of where the negotiations stand at the moment. But he allowed it was possible lawmakers end up with a December stopgap at first and another extension later if necessary. 

“I don’t support any idea of a CR. But out of necessity, if things don’t move, we’re going to have another CR. And it’s a question of how long,” he told reporters.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., declined to comment about the length of a stopgap. But she generally concurred with the view that it was better to get the fiscal 2020 bills done sooner: “I would love to get the work done this calendar year if it’s possible.”

Senate bills on the move

While negotiations were ongoing, the Senate was moving forward on four popular bills that should win approval this week, the first spending bills that chamber will have passed a month into the new fiscal year.

The chamber on Wednesday invoked cloture, 88-5, on the substitute amendment swapping in the text of the Senate versions in place of the five bills in the House-passed package. That measure also includes the Military Construction-VA bill, but Senate appropriators have yet to agree on their version of it due to disputes over funding for Trump’s border wall request.

The $214 billion package includes the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD spending bills as approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The unanimous votes in committee and on Wednesday’s cloture vote will likely presage broad bipartisan support on the floor for final passage, as early as Thursday.

But Senate floor momentum is expected to stall again when McConnell brings the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education spending package up for a procedural vote Thursday.

Democrats are unlikely to support cloture on the motion to proceed to that bundle. Among their concerns is the amount of funding Senate GOP appropriators put into the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, which they say is insufficient, and the possibility the White House once again diverts Pentagon funding to the border wall.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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