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Senators Preparing to Punt Spending Fight to February

Trump signals that he’s backing away from his demand of $5 billion for border wall in spending package

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier Tuesday that he would consider punting the appropriations fight into next year, with the caveat he had to see what the White House was willing to accept. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier Tuesday that he would consider punting the appropriations fight into next year, with the caveat he had to see what the White House was willing to accept. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congressional leaders are moving closer to a stopgap funding bill that would save Christmas, but push off final decisions on fiscal 2019 spending until early February.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said the Senate was preparing to advance a continuing resolution for all seven unfinished spending bills that would last until early February.

And the Alabama Republican said he assumed that President Donald Trump would sign the bill.

Trump signaled Wednesday morning that he was backing away from his demand that any spending bill contain $5 billion for his wall on the southern border, tweeting that Democrats “fight to the death” on that and other issues. But he vowed “one way or the other” he would eventually build the southern border wall.

While Shelby would not entirely rule out a more global agreement between the House, Senate and White House, he was not optimistic.

“This is Tuesday,” Shelby said. “There is some chance, but it would have to be a major development between the White House and the Democrats.”

Minutes before Shelby updated reporters in the basement of the Capitol Tuesday evening, other members of the Appropriations Committee were still hoping to avoid another continuing resolution for the agencies that haven’t been funded.

“I think we’re very close. The Republicans and Democrats are not that far apart, and the president has been helpful,” Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran said. “We ought not accept a CR until we exhaust every other opportunity to solve the appropriations.”

Also on Tuesday, Democrats were starting to express a willingness to expect such a short-term “clean” funding measure.

“If Leader McConnell puts a short-term CR on the table, it’s something we’d very seriously consider,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said following his party’s caucus lunch. Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also indicated that a short-term continuing resolution might be an option..

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the day had tried unsuccessfully to sell Schumer on a plan to use the base Senate Homeland Security spending bill, with $1.6 billion for border fencing, plus another $1 billion for border security measures.

McConnell later told reporters he will now consider punting into next year as a possible alternative to the options Democrats presented, with the caveat he had to determine what the White House was willing to accept.

“I would rather not be dealing with this year’s business next year,” McConnell said, referring to the possibility of punting all spending decisions early into the new Congress in 2019. McConnell called a short-term stopgap into next year “the least preferable outcome,” but added, “I think a government shutdown is not a good idea.”

“Yes,” McConnell said, when asked if he was now convinced the government would not shut down.

Shelby said the two parties were still trading offers on border wall funding, and that there was still time to reach agreement on salvaging the seven outstanding bills totaling roughly $313 billion in discretionary spending under the caps agreed to for fiscal 2019. That’s about $11 billion more than would be provided under a full-year stopgap.

GOP senators leaving their policy lunch on Tuesday seemed resigned to voting on a temporary funding bill, though Shelby said the House would have to also be on board.

“I don’t think we ought to pass anything until we have some kind of understanding with the House leadership that they would support what we do,” he said.

The House doesn’t come back into session until Wednesday evening.

And Trump would have to sign a short-term stopgap before he heads to Mar-a-Lago for his family’s Christmas vacation starting Friday — when the government should partially shut down.

Kellie Mejdrich and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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