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Congress Being Congress: Funding Fight Kicked to Later in December

Shutdown threat this weekend averted, but after Dec. 22, the odds go up

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., a senior appropriator, thinks defense funding could be a vehicle for GOP priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., a senior appropriator, thinks defense funding could be a vehicle for GOP priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Even as President Donald Trump said Wednesday that a government shutdown “could happen,” Congress is on track to pass a two-week continuing resolution to avoid just that.

But after that stopgap, there are no guarantees. Republicans are working on a strategy that appears designed to test Democrats’ resolve to pick a fight over their spending priorities.

The House will vote on the two-week stopgap measure Thursday — a day before government funding is set to expire — and an overwhelming majority of Republicans are expected to support it. Once Republicans prove they have 218 votes, a sizable number of Democrats will likely join them.

Senate Republicans and Democrats alike indicated that they will pass the two-week CR, effectively pushing the shutdown threat to Dec. 22.

“I think everybody understands we are going to have to be negotiating for a couple more weeks to get to that final deal,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said. “So extending from the 8th to the 22nd makes sense.”

Republicans, however, aren’t preparing for just one final deal. House GOP leaders and key conference members, as well as some Senate Republicans, have been talking about two additional spending bills.

Although no agreement has been reached, their plan involves first passing a spending bill by Dec. 22 that would fully fund defense programs through the end of the fiscal year and use another continuing resolution to keep the remaining agencies open until an omnibus measure can be drafted.

The CR portion is expected to last until late January, at which time the goal is to pass an omnibus measure to fund those remaining agencies through the end of the fiscal year, members involved in the discussions said. The defense portion would include language to raise the defense spending cap from $549 billion to around $626 billion.

The Senate is also discussing a continuing resolution into January that would include the defense funding bill, according to Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a senior appropriator.

That plan is unlikely to fly with Senate Democrats, and Republicans readily acknowledge it. Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin called the idea “unacceptable.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, with a 10 being the most optimistic, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said, “I’m about a two or a three” on the chances Congress would succeed in passing such a measure.

“I’m trying to get me up to a five,” the North Carolina Republican said.

Despite the dismal odds, Meadows said Republicans must avoid repeating the cycle of giving in to Democrats’ demands on appropriations bills.

Stirring the pot

While the strategy is clearly focused on conservative priorities, Republicans have some ideas they hope will get Democrats on board, at least in the Senate, where a minimum of eight Democrats would be needed to pass any spending bill. 

First, they expect to attach the disaster aid supplement and funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program to make the increase in defense spending more palatable for Democrats.

“The defense bill is a big engine,” Shelby said. “It’ll take anything with it.”

Second, House Republicans are talking about passing the spending package and heading home for Christmas, leaving the Senate with what some see as a decision to pass it too or shut down the government.

Watch: Get an Up-Close Look at This Year’s Capitol Christmas Tree

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“They don’t have a choice,” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, one of the Republican Study Committee members who’s been working on the proposal, said. He confirmed the plan would be for the House to pass it and leave.

“Once we pass that bill, the total burden for funding the government is on the shoulders of the United States Senate,” he said. “And they will either shoulder that burden or they will not.”

And then there’s the political pressure gambit.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can’t reach an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, he could always look to the 10 Democrats running for re-election in states that Trump won, Rep. Chris Collins said.

“I think they do tend to have a mind of their own if they want to get re-elected,” the New York Republican said. “Luckily those aren’t issues in the House.”

Asked if he would want a guarantee from McConnell that he’d take up whatever measure House Republicans agree to, Meadows said, “I don’t know that we can extract that. That would be very good if we had a promise from McConnell. But we are having discussions with some of our Senate colleagues.”

One idea that could eventually enter the negotiations at some point is a proposal introduced by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking member Patty Murray of Washington to fund the cost-sharing reduction subsidies for the health insurance exchanges.

“If Alexander-Murray would break the defense and nondefense wall, that may be a price that many would be willing to pay,” Meadows said, although he noted that has not been a part of the discussions so far.

Trump and McConnell have already agreed to pass Alexander-Murray and another related health care measure in order to secure Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ vote for the tax overhaul, Collins has said.

Most House Republicans, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan, have panned the proposal, saying it props up the 2010 health care law that they want to repeal. However, leadership and others have been mum about the plan since the Senate has decided to use it as negotiating tool on the tax overhaul.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, speaking about possible attachments to the spending bill, said funding the cost-sharing reduction subsidies is one of “three things that I give the big ‘no’ in front of.” The other two he cited were a debt ceiling increase and a legislative fix to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Dealing with Trump

The viability of the GOP’s strategy will be tested as Trump hosts a meeting Thursday afternoon at the White House with the top four congressional leaders to discuss spending and other year-end matters. Ryan, McConnell, Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are expected to attend.

Democrats skipped a meeting with Trump and the GOP leaders last week after the president tweeted that he didn’t think he could reach a deal with them. Although he didn’t use those words, he implied the same Wednesday in saying that a shutdown “could happen” because of Democrats’ position on immigration.

“The Democrats are really looking at something that is very dangerous for our country,” he said. “They are looking at shutting down. They want to have illegal immigrants, in many cases people that we don’t want in our country — they want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bring with them crime, tremendous amounts of drugs. We don’t want to have that.”

Democrats have not made any demands related to illegal immigrants pouring into the country, but rather are seeking a deal on so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants already in the country that were brought here as children. Trump decided to terminate DACA, which has provided the Dreamers with work permits that shelter them from deportation.

Pelosi responded to Trump’s comment in a tweet, saying, “President Trump is the only person talking about a government shutdown. Democrats are hopeful the President will be open to an agreement to address the urgent needs of the American people and keep government open.”

Jennifer Shutt and Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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