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Shutdown Fears Abound, Despite Temporary Reprieve

Another deadline looming in appropriations standoff

Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, says Transportation-HUD measure not among the “problem child” spending bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, says Transportation-HUD measure not among the “problem child” spending bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congressional aides on both sides of the aisle say they don’t see how the appropriations impasse ends without a partial government shutdown just in time for Christmas Eve.

President Donald Trump signed a continuing resolution into law Friday that would change the expiration date of the stopgap measure enacted before the midterm elections to Dec. 21. But he wasted little time in taking aim at Democratic leaders for “playing political games” on border security funding, even as he prepares to sit down with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York in the Oval Office Tuesday.

While many lawmakers are publicly expressing confidence a shutdown will be avoided, aides speaking on condition of anonymity said there is a widespread fear that the talks will collapse and lead to a shutdown.

At the same time, there appears to be little appetite for a shutdown among Democrats and Republicans in Congress, especially days before Christmas and weeks before Democrats take control of the House. Republicans have taken the blame for shutdowns in 1995-1996, and again in 2013. Democrats took a beating when they triggered a brief shutdown over failure to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in January.

The two sides are at loggerheads over Trump’s request for $5 billion in funding for a border wall. Schumer has drawn the line at the $1.6 billion in wall construction funds that Trump initially requested in his fiscal 2019 budget. The Senate’s Homeland Security bill contains $1.6 billion for border security. The House version  contains nearly the $5 billion Trump requested informally in a meeting with Republicans this summer, which has skipped the formal budget amendment process but has been reinforced in private documents submitted to lawmakers.

Making matters tougher for both chambers, the White House is asking for additional dollars in late-stage requests that appropriators cannot accommodate without busting the spending caps agreed to in February; or cutting elsewhere within the bills they have already put forward; or declaring some of the money an “emergency” that shouldn’t count towards the budget caps. That includes more money for wildfire suppression and a new $190 million ask to help care for unaccompanied minor children detained after crossing the border, for instance.

“We’re at an impasse right now,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said last week. “I think that something’s got to be worked out between the president and Schumer and Pelosi, and us, but them mainly because a lot of us believe that we’re this close to closing” on remaining spending bills.

Watch: What’s a Continuing Resolution?

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Give and take

During behind the scenes talks that have taken place since Thanksgiving, Republicans have pressed for agreement on a seven-bill package that would include $5 billion for the wall — all in one year, in an initial offer, or spread over two years, in a subsequent offer. Democrats rejected those proposals, offering instead a six-bill package combined with a continuing resolution extending the current level of spending in the Homeland Security bill until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

One possible approach to compromise that might get support from both sides would be to provide the $1.6 billion for border fencing in the Senate bill, or possibly a little less, but provide additional funding for the wall in an advance appropriation for fiscal 2020, resulting in more than $1.6 billion over two years. Trump would get more than the $1.6 billion in the Senate bill over two years, but Democrats could say they held the line in the first year.

Another potential path would be to provide more than $1.6 billion for border security in both fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020 — still short of $5 billion over two years — with the caveat that the bill would include language that Democrats say would restrict how the money is spent.

Short of a border agreement, the easiest path might be to punt into early next year with a stopgap funding measure for all seven bills.

Republican and Democratic leaders would prefer to pass as many of the spending bills as possible, which could result in a six-bill package combined with a continuing resolution for Homeland Security that would expire either before the end of the fiscal year or run through Sept. 30.

But one argument making the rounds for a CR on Homeland Security is to allow time for the Supreme Court to rule, before the end of its term ending in June, on the legality of DACA. If the Court’s new, decidedly-conservative tilt leads to striking the “Dreamers” program down, it could give Trump leverage with Democratic leaders to give him the wall money he wants in exchange for a broader deal on immigration policy, the thinking goes.

For now, however, the White House continues to be dug in on getting the $5 billion it wants, whether it’s spread over one or two fiscal years. And Trump doesn’t seem to understand or care much for the usual “establishment” way of thinking that shutdowns are a bad idea and might hurt him politically.

‘Very Few’ other issues left

The other six spending bills are largely resolved, but some disagreements remain and await resolution by leadership. Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said there are “very few” outstanding issues in the remaining spending bills. If an agreement is reached on the border, lawmakers “could wrap this up in no time,” he said.

In the Financial Services bill, there is disagreement over a House GOP-authored $585 million Treasury Department “Fund for America’s Kids and Grandkids,” a Democratic proposal for $380 million in funding for election assistance grants for states, and a Senate proposal to set aside $768 million to buy the Transportation Department’s Southeast Washington, D.C. campus.

Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, chairman of the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, anticipates no problems with that subcommittee’s bill.

“You know, we bumped a few issues up to a higher level, but there’s nothing that hasn’t been resolved in the past,” he said. “I believe we have a, we’re ready to go, if there’s a conclusion on homeland.”

Leahy said last week there is still no agreement on a rider Democrats want to include to prevent the administration from including a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, which critics say would chill participation and could result in less favorable districts for Democrats when the lines are redrawn post-census.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said he is still in discussions on some issues in the bill but that it’s essentially ready to go. “I think we’re OK,” he said. “We’re still in good shape.”

Nevertheless, cell-cultured meat and poultry still appear to be sticking points in the bill despite an agreement between the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department to divide up regulatory responsibility between the two agencies on the emerging industry.

Hoeven said he has spoken with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue about cultured meat since FDA and USDA made their announcement in November. Hoeven added that he has a meeting scheduled with House members and “can’t say definitively we’re all squared away there.”

Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said her bill only has a handful of issues to resolve.

“We have very few unresolved issues,” she said. “If I had my way we would divorce T-HUD and [Agriculture] from the problem child bills and send it to the president’s desk. But I don’t think my idea is going to prevail.”

Doug Sword, Ellyn Ferguson, Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt, Todd Ruger and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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