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Senate appropriations markups likely off until September

Congressional leaders and Trump administration have to agree on spending caps in next few weeks

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is holding off on assembling the fiscal 2020 spending bills (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is holding off on assembling the fiscal 2020 spending bills (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Appropriations Committee likely won’t mark up any of its fiscal 2020 spending bills before leaving town for the August recess — the first time in more than three decades the panel hasn’t debated any of the annual spending bills before the customary summer break.

The decision to hold back Senate appropriations bills in the absence of a spending caps agreement has set a markedly different pace for the committee than last year, when it sent all 12 of its bills to the floor before the break began.

But all of that could turn on its head in September, when the panel will likely hold marathon markups for all of its bills — provided congressional leaders and the Trump administration can agree on defense and nondefense spending caps in the next few weeks.

[Mnuchin: Parties moving closer on debt limit, spending caps]

“If we had the work scheduled and worked together, we could mark them all up” in September, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday. “Now, that’s very ambitious and I understand that, but I said if we had the backing of both sides and the leadership and worked every day — and night. Absolutely.”

[Congress returns to pressure to get spending deals done]

Last year, Senate appropriators marked up all 12 bills over the span of a little more than a month, encompassing five markup sessions from late May through the end of June.

September is going to be a tighter schedule, however, given the chamber doesn’t reconvene until Sept. 9. And appropriators will also need to process a temporary stopgap funding bill, assuming that isn’t also dealt with as part of spending caps and debt ceiling legislation this month. Another supplemental spending bill is always possible as well, after the summer hurricane season and other potential calamities.

Shelby and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the committee’s top Democrat, have been talking about the upcoming process, trying to revive an agreement from last year that kept each party from adding policy language to the spending bills that either side would tag as a “poison pill.” Shelby said the duo currently has “an agreement in principle” but there’s nothing firm yet.

Shelby had previously said he’d like to begin his markup process this month, even if just with notional subcommittee allocations that could be adjusted later. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the panel should hold off until there is a deal on toplines.

Spending caps deal needed

Whether marathon Senate markups can take place first thing after Labor Day will depend on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration reaching an accord on a spending caps deal.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday the two have had “very productive discussions” and that he’s “very hopeful” they can come to an agreement quickly.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, who spent Saturday on the golf course with President Donald Trump and Senate GOP colleagues Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, said there was a significant amount of discussion about spending.

“We talked about how to get … the government funded right now to get past this logjam, and I think the president’s willing to do that,” Perdue said Monday. “We’re not that far apart on what, you know the House has offered and what the administration wants.”

After spending time with Trump, Perdue hinted strongly that any deal between Pelosi and Mnuchin would hold up.

“Well, it’s never a deal until the president of the United States says it’s a deal, but I think Secretary Mnuchin is moving in a manner consistent with what the president’s willing to do. He wants to make a deal to get this government funded,” Perdue said.

Mnuchin told reporters Monday that the administration would prefer a combo spending caps and debt ceiling deal. But given Treasury now believes the debt ceiling needs to be raised shortly after Labor Day, he said a standalone debt ceiling bill might be necessary if they can’t reach a deal on caps this month.

The White House announced late Monday that Trump will meet with Republican congressional leaders at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

No ‘decoupling′

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agrees with the White House position that the debt limit should take precedence if necessary. “We’d have to have that because you don’t want any disruption in the markets,” he said.

But Pelosi has repeatedly been firm that the two issues must be linked. She reiterated to reporters Monday that Democrats are focused on getting a combined budget caps and debt limit deal, and the notion of doing the latter without action on the former is not acceptable to her caucus.

Many Senate Republicans want to keep the two issues linked as well.

“I personally wouldn’t be for decoupling the caps discussion from the debt ceiling discussion,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri. “I think that we ought to solve both these problems at the same time.”

Blunt, a senior appropriator and member of leadership, dismissed the idea there might not be time to process an agreement on spending caps and the debt limit before the August recess.

“You could do a caps deal between now and 7:30 tonight if you really wanted to do a caps deal,” Blunt said shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, checking his watch.

Paul M. Krawzak and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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