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Spending negotiations appear headed for another stopgap bill

'We haven't resolved anything yet,' top GOP appropriator says of omnibus talks

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks with reporters Wednesday about the status of spending negotiations.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks with reporters Wednesday about the status of spending negotiations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress is on course to pass a third government funding stopgap for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, as negotiations on a 12-bill omnibus package continue at a snail’s pace barely two weeks before the Feb. 18 deadline appropriators set in the last continuing resolution. 

“I think we’re probably headed that direction anyway, whether it’s going to be a longer one or a shorter one,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby said Thursday about the likelihood of another continuing resolution. “And that would depend on the leadership  . . .  on where we are, if we are anywhere in our negotiations.”

They are not anywhere at the moment.

“We haven’t resolved anything yet,” Shelby said.

The Alabama Republican said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will make the call on how long the next CR should last. House leaders would likely be involved as well, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered no indications of needing another stopgap Thursday.

“Right now, we are going back and forth with offers between the Democrats and Republicans and  . . .  we’re hoping to reach a deal on a topline very soon on that,” the California Democrat said at her weekly news conference.

Pelosi was referring to topline spending levels for defense and nondefense. Democrats want to enact a bigger increase for nondefense, arguing funding for domestic programs has not kept up with Pentagon spending. Republicans are pushing for “parity,” or equal percentage increases for both sides of the ledger. 

Republicans provided Democrats with an offer Wednesday that proposed a larger increase for defense than the $778 billion that Congress approved on a bipartisan basis in the fiscal 2022 defense authorization law. That figure, a 5 percent increase over fiscal 2021 funding levels, includes spending on the Pentagon and other security-related programs that fall outside the Defense Department.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy declined to comment Thursday on Republicans’ offer. 

“I’ll be happy to talk to them about it. I never negotiate through the press,” the Vermont Democrat said. 

Democrats received the GOP offer Wednesday shortly before a scheduled 3 p.m. meeting of the “four corners,” which in addition to Leahy and Shelby includes House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas. The meeting was postponed so Democrats could take time to review the GOP offer but as of midday Thursday it had not been rescheduled. 

With the Senate planning to adjourn for the week on Thursday afternoon, Shelby said he didn’t think the four corners would meet again if Democrats did not reschedule the confab soon. In either event, he said staff would continue talking and working. 

‘Healthy’ talks

Asked if Democrats had sent an offer back to Republicans, Shelby said, “Not formally back, but they’re talking, we’re talking, and that’s healthy.”

Still, he suggested a deal was not imminent.

“Am I optimistic? Probably not at this point,” Shelby said. “But I’m not glum. Not yet.”

One of the issues appropriators need to resolve is whether to put funding for a 2018 veterans health benefits expansion under the nondefense caps as Republicans prefer, or to provide a “cap adjustment” as Democrats proposed in their fiscal 2022 budget resolution.

“That is a impediment too, but it’s not the main one. It’s a big one,” Shelby said. “We’d like to get it into the base funding and go from there.”

Even if appropriators could reach a deal on defense and nondefense toplines in the next few days, they would still need time to hammer out spending levels for the individual 12 bills and all the policy details under them. That’s a massive task that would be difficult to negotiate in less than two weeks, let alone draft finalized text for and pass through both chambers. 

Thus, as Shelby admitted, it’s all but inevitable Congress will pass another CR extending fiscal 2021 funding levels past Feb. 18. But whether that stopgap lasts a few weeks, a few months or the remainder of the fiscal year will depend on the level of progress appropriators make in omnibus talks. 

“If it’s a short-term [CR] that would mean probably that we’re making some progress, real progress,” Shelby said. “If it’s longer, we might go … for the rest of the year.” 

While none of the appropriators want a full-year CR, Republicans calculate that continuing fiscal 2021 spending levels and policies enacted under former President Donald Trump is more favorable than giving into too many of Democrats’ demands in the fiscal 2022 talks. 

The major incentive for Republicans to agree to an omnibus would be to give more money to the Pentagon. 

Shelby acknowledged that geopolitical issues including the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine are factors in wanting to avoid a CR and instead provide fresh funding and policy flexibility to the Pentagon.

“It just manifests what’s going on in the world,” he said of the situation in Ukraine. “And then you see China and Russia are putting a lot of their ideas together. It’s a dangerous world for us and some of our allies.”

Pelosi has also cited national security as a reason to avoid a stopgap. On Thursday she also noted that the bipartisan infrastructure law can not be fully implemented without an omnibus deal. 

“One connection between infrastructure and omnibus is that some of the money in the infrastructure bill cannot be freed up until we pass the omnibus bill,” she said. 

An issue for the Transportation Department, for instance, is the oddball hybrid budgetary status of programs financed by the Highway Trust Fund. Higher spending for those programs allocated by the infrastructure law can’t flow until appropriators actually write those numbers into this year’s spending bill; in the meantime, contract reimbursements are stuck at last year’s stopgap funding rates.

“I think it’s a very serious matter,” House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., said in a Jan. 11 interview.

David Lerman and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

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