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Stopgap funds to February or March in play; Dec. 17 also mulled

The two parties remain far apart on spending levels and policy riders

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., left, shown with Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said an impasse over spending bills could lead to a yearlong continuing resolution.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., left, shown with Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said an impasse over spending bills could lead to a yearlong continuing resolution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats and Republicans are eyeing a two- to three-month continuing resolution that would punt final decisions on fiscal 2022 appropriations into February or March, according to sources familiar with the talks.

That decision, if blessed by House Democrats and the Biden administration, would decouple a complicated omnibus spending bill covering every federal agency from thorny negotiations over budget reconciliation and the debt limit.

But it wasn’t yet clear Democrats across the Capitol were unified behind that strategy, with some pushing a much shorter stopgap measure running for two weeks, to Dec. 17. That would keep the pressure on for a spending deal before the winter holiday season and allow lawmakers to clear the decks for next year’s agenda.

Another possibility is lawmakers try out a stopgap bill to Dec. 17, see how much progress is possible, and then pass another CR, this time through the end of February or March.

A short-term CR for just two more weeks would typically signal that appropriators need a bit more time to wrap up negotiations on the dozen bills and move them through both chambers.

But the two parties remain far apart on spending levels as well as policy riders in the bills, none of which have yet become law. A Senate GOP aide said Monday that a two-week stopgap “isn’t going to provide any additional opportunity for a resolution” on fiscal 2022 appropriations bills if Democrats “continue to insist on their poison pills.”

Senate Democrats have proposed increasing defense spending by 5 percent over the previous fiscal year, in line with bipartisan funding levels in the defense authorization bill, and boosting nondefense accounts by 13 percent.

Senate Republicans have rejected those numbers, saying there must be equal increases to defense and nondefense spending throughout the bills. Republicans, however, have not sent back a counteroffer on spending levels, insisting instead that Democrats must agree to add legacy policy language on dozens of issues back into the appropriations bills and remove new policies the GOP deems “poison pills.”

Top appropriators from each chamber met earlier this month to try to begin bridging the gaps, though they did not make much progress.

Democrats left the meeting calling on Republicans to send them an offer on spending levels, and Republicans said Democrats must first agree to long-standing policy before they can negotiate spending levels.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said after the meeting that the “impasse” could lead to a yearlong CR.

“A lot of people would like that,” Shelby said. “One, that keeps all the riders off. You know? Think of that from our standpoint.”

Two days later, Shelby said lawmakers could reach “a short-term deal to see if we can do something before Christmas” or opt for a longer CR through February or March.

A two-week CR, threatening lawmakers’ holiday plans, could provide momentum to negotiations, or it could backfire, leaving both sides more frustrated than they are at the moment.

If enacted, a Dec. 17 stopgap would keep lawmakers in Washington one week longer than they are currently scheduled to be in the Capitol and give congressional leaders more time to try to wrap up talks on full-year appropriations bills.

It would also extend the congressional schedule to finish work on the roughly $2 trillion reconciliation package and give Democrats more time to sort out a debt limit bill that analysts say could be needed before the end of the calendar year.

But given the numerous decisions needed to construct a massive omnibus appropriations bill, including many final calls kicked upstairs to leadership, it’s not clear top Democrats want that kind of pressure hanging over them before the holidays with so much else on their plate.

When lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 29, they will have just one week to clear a stopgap spending bill before the current funding law expires on Dec. 3.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.

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