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Two-year spending caps deal on the table in appropriations talks

Current stopgap funding extension runs through Dec. 3

There’s precedent for two-year spending deals, Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby notes.
There’s precedent for two-year spending deals, Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby notes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Top Senate appropriators on Thursday didn’t rule out negotiating two years’ worth of spending levels rather than allocations just for this year, in line with budget caps deals lawmakers have struck going back to 2013. 

Such an agreement, if possible, could remove uncertainty hanging over this year’s appropriations process and potentially get next year’s markups off to a quick start as lawmakers turn their attention to the 2022 midterm campaigns.  

“We’ve done a number of two-year deals,” said Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. “A two-year deal, if you can do one, you put that off the table and you probably get more done.” 

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., didn’t reject the possibility, but said he mainly wants to “get the [fiscal 2022] bills through.”

Appropriators remain stalled over the budget ceiling for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and how to allocate discretionary funds among their 12 subcommittees. Senate Democrats on Monday released their nine remaining fiscal 2022 bills after the Appropriations Committee reported out three with bipartisan backing in August. 

Leahy moved toward the GOP position of “parity” for defense and nondefense accounts by increasing the defense share to a 5 percent boost over last year, up from 2 percent in the House Democrats’ bills. But nondefense agencies would get a more than 13 percent increase on average, which Republicans argue is inequitable.

Democrats say boosting domestic and foreign aid accounts would help bring them back in line with historical averages.

Shelby said earlier this week he was preparing a counteroffer to Leahy on both spending levels and policy provisions after alleging the Democrats’ bills were loaded with “poison pills.”

Shelby said those talks are “slow and protracted” and that he doesn’t expect “anything serious is going to happen” until Congress wraps up work on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, budget reconciliation package and possibly the debt limit. 

That could mean another continuing resolution will be necessary for federal agencies operating under a stopgap funding extension that runs through Dec. 3.

“I don’t see how we do something before Dec. 3 unless people come together all at once, and there seems to be no movement there,” he said.

President Joe Biden signed into law legislation raising the debt ceiling by $480 billion, which the Treasury Department says will give it enough borrowing room to meet all government obligations into at least early December. That means the debt ceiling and government funding fights could end up converging.

Congress regularly negotiated two-year spending agreements during the last decade in order to avoid the austere spending caps in the 2011 deficit reduction law. Three of those deals, in 2015, 2018 and 2019, included debt ceiling suspensions of one to two years.

In 2015, Republicans had majorities in both chambers. In 2018, Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. In 2019, Republicans had the White House while Democrats controlled Congress. This year with Democrats running Congress and in the Oval Office, Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been adamant they won’t help advance debt limit legislation.

Shelby and McConnell were among 11 GOP senators who allowed the short-term debt ceiling increase to advance on a cloture vote, but Republicans say Democrats are on their own the next time. Shelby’s comments Thursday reinforce the view that an appropriations deal probably won’t come attached to a debt ceiling bill and that agencies could be looking at a series of stopgap spending extensions beyond Dec. 3 until agreement is reached.

Leahy said he doesn’t plan to mark up the nine spending bills released this week but “absolutely” wants to bring them to the floor for votes. “I posted the bills and you see what I want. Now we ought to just vote them up or vote them down,” he said Thursday.

If Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer were to bring any of the more partisan appropriations bills to the floor, he’d run into the same problem Democrats have run into on a slew of bills this year — the legislative filibuster. Democrats would need at least 10 Republicans to join them in invoking cloture to end debate and move to final passage.