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Senate clears stopgap, pivots to endgame spending talks

The bill funds the government through Nov. 21, giving Congress and the White House more time to reach agreement on appropriations

Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prepare for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. The Senate voted Thursday to approve the House-passed bill to fund the government through Nov. 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, and Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prepare for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. The Senate voted Thursday to approve the House-passed bill to fund the government through Nov. 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate on Thursday cleared a spending bill that will fund the government through Nov. 21, giving lawmakers and the White House more time to reach agreement on the annual appropriations process. The vote was 81-16, with all of the ‘no’ votes coming from Republicans.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the continuing resolution, holding off another partial government shutdown for at least 52 more days. But this could be the first of several stopgap bills amid tense debates about abortion policy and the border wall.

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“As we close out this month, I think, we must acknowledge the progress we have made while also recognizing that we still have a long way to go in fulfilling our duty to fund the government,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. “Most importantly for those negotiations to end in success … my Democratic colleagues and the president will have to reach an agreement, once again, on border security.”

Shelby was planning to meet with Trump later on Thursday to discuss border wall funding and other issues which have held up the fiscal 2020 appropriations process. Staff-level talks have begun between House and Senate appropriators, but there’s little they can do until it’s clear what the president will sign.

In addition to providing temporary funding for much of the federal government, the CR will allocate $20.5 billion to the Commodity Credit Corporation to help farmers impacted by the Trump administration’s trade disputes. The stopgap spending bill also extends several health care programs as well as the National Flood Insurance Program, Export-Import Bank and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for the length of the stopgap.  

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The Senate vote on the CR followed the House, which passed the measure 301-123 last week. Votes from 76 Republicans helped Democrats to establish a veto-proof majority in that chamber.

Before passage, the Senate voted 24-73 to reject an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have reduced spending set aside under the bill by 2 percent.

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One and done?

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed hope that this will be the only continuing resolution needed for fiscal 2020, which begins Oct. 1, but ongoing disputes could lead to several more stopgap measures.  

Negotiations over appropriations bills have become particularly divisive with Democrats focused on reigning in the White House’s ability to reprogram funding for the border wall and reversing a new rule that prevents Title X family planning grants from going to any organization that provides or discusses abortion. That new rule led Planned Parenthood to withdraw from the program.

The House Democrats’ push for a formal impeachment inquiry, based on allegations surrounding President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, also threatens the bipartisan comity required to focus on routine legislative business.

“It’ll affect everything,” Shelby said of the impeachment inquiry. “Will it preclude us from doing [spending bills]? No, it won’t preclude us. But it could make it more difficult.”

The House has passed 10 of its 12 spending bills, mostly along partisan lines.

Those bills were written to a higher nondefense spending allocation than the one congressional leaders and the Trump administration agreed to in July, however. And Democrats loaded up their bills with partisan policy riders opposed by the White House and Senate Republicans.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved 10 of its spending bills — eight of which have bipartisan support from the typically collegial panel. But disagreements over a handful of hot-button issues have sidetracked hopes for floor debate on the Defense, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education and Military Construction-VA appropriations bills. The last two haven’t been marked up yet in committee.

Shelby and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., are both advocating for the bills with bipartisan support to get floor debate and are continuing to discuss ways agreement could be reached on the four stalled bills. 

One of the problems is funding that Senate Republicans have proposed to accommodate Trump’s wall-building request: the DHS bill has $5 billion in it, matching the budget request, with that bill in line for a nearly 8 percent increase while the Labor-HHS-Education bill would get roughly 1 percent more than the current year.

And Democrats have dual concerns about backfilling the $3.6 billion in military construction funds that the Trump administration has deferred to finance additional wall-building.

The first is that replacing the money the administration took from military projects is tantamount to approving an additional $3.6 billion for wall construction. The second is that the administration could just take the funding again, further delaying construction projects on domestic and international bases while bolstering the wall construction coffer without congressional approval.

“We’ve done little more than shrug at this abuse of our constitutional authority,” Leahy said. “We just looked away from the egregious treatment of our troops as little more than a piggy bank for the president’s political pet project.”

Flat funding

The continuing resolution will continue funding wall construction at the $1.375 billion level agreed to during the fiscal 2019 process. It’ll also continue to prevent any new fence from being built outside the Rio Grande Valley, a provision the Trump administration would like removed from the fiscal 2020 Homeland Security spending bill. 

The vast majority of government agencies will continue to operate for the next several weeks with the same rate of funding appropriated for the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Certain “anomalies” are included in the measure to allow agencies to spend at higher rates, such as for 2020 census preparations and disaster relief.

One fallback scenario that’s been talked about would see at least some federal agencies funded under a full-year CR, if they can’t reach agreements on subcommittee allocations, the wall or policy riders.

Under a long-term stopgap for all agencies, defense accounts would stay at $716 billion — forgoing a $22 billion, or 3 percent, increase to $738 billion. Democrats want to preserve what they argue is a comparable 3 percent boost for nondefense programs, to $632 billion, after factoring in private veterans medical care programs that now require discretionary funds set aside by appropriators, after a 2018 law.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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