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Lawmakers said to be on verge of a bipartisan omnibus agreement

Schumer put Senate on notice that a weeklong spending bill is on its way to the floor

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is facing a Friday deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is facing a Friday deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House and Senate negotiators appear to be close to reaching agreement on a bipartisan omnibus spending deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday.

The deal, if it comes, would pave the way for final fiscal 2023 appropriations that congressional leaders hope to pass by next week. However, the details of that potential agreement, including how — and if — it would bridge the parties’ multibillion-dollar gap on nondefense funding, remain under wraps.

With current funding set to expire at midnight Friday, congressional leaders are moving to buy themselves a little more time. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer put his chamber on notice that a weeklong spending bill is on its way to the floor.

“Later this week members should be prepared to take quick action on a CR, a one-week CR, so we can give appropriators more time to finish a full funding bill before the holidays,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor. “I am optimistic we could take action on a CR rather quickly and avoid the shutdown that neither side wants.”

Discussions turned more positive over the weekend, Schumer said, giving party leaders enough confidence to keep the talks going beyond this Friday night’s scheduled continuing resolution lapse. The one-week stopgap measure would give lawmakers until nearly Christmas Eve to wrap up an omnibus package and go home for the holidays — or require a lengthier funding extension into the new year.

“I think if we get an agreement today or tomorrow, we’ll have it done before Christmas,” Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Monday.

Senate Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member John Boozman also said the next few days are critical if Congress is going to pass an omnibus by Dec. 23. The Arkansas Republican couldn’t pinpoint where the reported progress in bipartisan talks was coming from, and Democratic appropriators declined to give details.

“I don’t know if they’ve made progress with Republicans or progress amongst themselves,” Boozman said of Democratic negotiators.

‘Passing suggestions’

Democrats had planned on releasing an omnibus they had written without Republican input but designed to earn the opposing party’s votes. They punted on the planned Monday release after progress in the negotiations over the weekend. 

Both sides have agreed to about $858 billion in defense-related spending, laid out in the defense authorization bill, a roughly 10 percent increase over last year’s level. But the two sides have been going back and forth on the nondefense spending level, with Shelby saying last week the two sides were about $26 billion apart. 

On Monday, Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said that divide hadn’t narrowed yet, with the two parties still dug in on their respective numbers. But he nonetheless said he was “optimistic” about reaching a topline deal, even if “we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

“We’re passing suggestions to each other and working, trying to work in good faith,” Shelby said.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Monday night said she’d had “really good conversations” with Shelby and “we’ll continue that.”

“I’m optimistic … we’re trying to work with one another,” DeLauro said. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he spoke to Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, who also expressed more optimism about reaching agreement. Leahy, D-Vt., confirmed his sentiment later to reporters: “I’m always optimistic.”

Slim difference, big implications

The numbers gap represents a tiny fraction of the nearly $1.7 trillion members of both parties are basically on board with. But the split between defense and nondefense funds has big implications on both sides.

Democrats have generally pushed for “parity” between defense and nondefense increases that has been a feature of previous years’ negotiations: just shy of 10 percent increases for both categories. But in a twist, Democrats are excluding veterans health care from that calculation. Democrats prefer to put all or some of the roughly 22 percent increase in veterans health spending in its own category.

With the veterans total lumped in with the rest of the domestic and foreign aid accounts, the total for nondefense jumps above 11 percent — which Republicans argue is unacceptable given substantial domestic spending in the budget reconciliation packages of the last two years.

With the total nondefense figure shaved by $26 billion from the Democrats’ offer, the increase would dip to less than 8 percent over last year, or a less generous percentage boost than the Pentagon and other defense-related accounts would receive. For Democrats, that’s equally unacceptable.

One proposal shopped in recent days has been reclassifying some of the veterans health funding as mandatory, or outside of appropriators’ budget limits. Boozman said Monday that his side continues to resist that approach, which Republicans argue would allow Democrats to spend more money on their own domestic priorities.

Next moves

If no topline agreement is reached, Democrats will next pursue a full-year continuing resolution that would include earmarks members secured in the earlier versions of the fiscal 2023 spending bills. The Biden administration has also requested “anomalies” for that full-year CR, including billions more for homeland security, health programs and other increases above what a flat-funded continuing resolution would provide. 

But Democrats would need at least 10 Senate Republicans to get on board for that full-year CR, a dicey proposition. House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have been calling for a shorter-term CR into early next year, when Republicans will have a House majority. 

In his opening floor remarks Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t reject the idea of a one-week stopgap measure. But he served notice that if Democrats don’t drop their push for higher nondefense funding numbers, the only alternative will be to punt the unfinished fiscal 2023 bills into the new calendar year, and the new Congress.

“The commander in chief’s own party does not get to demand a pile of unrelated goodies in exchange for doing their job and funding our armed forces,” McConnell, R-Ky., said.

“If House and Senate Democratic colleagues can accept these realities in the very near future, we may still have a shot at assembling a full-year funding bill that will give our military commanders the certainty they need to invest, plan and stay competitive with rivals like China,” McConnell continued. “If our Democratic colleagues can’t accept those realities, the option will be a short-term bipartisan funding bill into early next year.”

McConnell’s chief rival among Senate Republicans, Florida’s Rick Scott, has been among those pushing for a CR into the first quarter of 2023. Scott is organizing a meeting for the GOP conference on Wednesday to talk about spending issues and the broader agenda for the coming year.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said his panel could meet as soon as Tuesday to consider a rule for floor debate on the weeklong funding extension, readying it for the floor in that chamber by midweek.

But in the Senate there are procedural hoops, and any one senator could object to speeding those up and jeopardize the Dec. 16 deadline. Scott wouldn’t comment on whether he plans to object, though Cornyn said an objection from someone was always possible.

“I’m not sure what that gains you in the long run, but it’s theoretically possible,” Cornyn said.

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