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Mnuchin emerges, again, as key player in budget talks

Treasury secretary reprises role he played when he helped broker July agreement

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is again surfacing as the Trump administration’s liaison with Congress in spending negotiations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is again surfacing as the Trump administration’s liaison with Congress in spending negotiations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is surfacing as the administration’s liaison with Congress in spending negotiations, reprising a role he played over the summer when he helped clinch a budget caps deal freeing up $171 billion more for appropriators to parcel out this fiscal year.

Mnuchin spoke with Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday night. “My conversation with Mnuchin was promising,” Shelby said Thursday.

Shelby and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., were meeting with Pelosi and Mnuchin at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.  

In her weekly news conference earlier Thursday, Pelosi characterized White House involvement in the talks as follows: “Let’s just say the administration and whoever else they may designate at the table.”

Mnuchin helped broker the July budget agreement after Pelosi and other top lawmakers grew frustrated with the more strident approach to spending limits favored by Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, and Russell Vought, his acting budget director. Without that increase to statutory spending caps, appropriators would have been facing some 10 percent budget cuts on average this fiscal year below what agencies received in fiscal 2019.

[Mnuchin says there is a topline agreement on spending caps and debt limit]

“Things have been quiet lately, but we hope he’s the person to re-engage,” Shelby said of Mnuchin. 

The chief hang-ups in the talks so far have been how to evenly distribute $632 billion in nondefense appropriations so that the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t benefit disproportionately. Senate Republicans approved allocations that would give DHS 8 percent more than last year, chiefly to accommodate Trump’s $5 billion border wall funding request. The Senate Labor-HHS-Education bill, by contrast, would have received just 1 percent more.

The White House has been receptive to a deal that includes a lower DHS allocation, but Democrats so far have drawn the line at giving Trump the transfer authority he wants to pull from prior-year military funds to finance the wall project. 

Next week, the House and Senate will take up a continuing resolution to buy more time for negotiations, which congressional leaders say will run through Dec. 20. White House officials say Trump will sign the latest stopgap bill, although the president himself hasn’t given a firm commitment. The current CR lapses Nov. 21.

“We have no intention of having a shutdown,” Mnuchin said after Thursday’s meeting. He declined to comment on the talks’ status, aside from saying, “I think we’re in good shape.”

Lowey told reporters the group agreed to try to get a deal on subcommittee allocations by next Wednesday at the latest, around when lawmakers will be voting on stopgap funds.

“I think what’s most important about that meeting, there was a general agreement from all sides that it was important to get our work done. And we intend to move forward and get our work done by Nov. 20,” Lowey said.

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A Democratic aide familiar with the talks said wall funding wasn’t discussed at the meeting, which focused on topline subcommittee spending levels. Lowey said House lawmakers have sent a proposed set of allocations to the Senate for review and a possible counteroffer.

“The way the process works is once those allocations are done, then the individual [sub]committees work with the challenges and areas where there are differences,” Lowey said.

Paul M. Krawzak and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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