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Topline appropriations talks at a standstill

Lawmakers likely need a framework deal in the next two weeks to meet first funding deadline in January

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Friday.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​Negotiations among congressional leaders over spending limits for fiscal 2024 appropriations are moving at a glacial pace, sources familiar with the talks say, calling into doubt lawmakers’ ability to enact final bills early next year without another stopgap spending measure. 

While staff-level meetings between leadership aides have been ongoing, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and his team have not indicated they will easily get on board with the funding levels set in the debt limit negotiations that the other three leaders have backed. 

This topline agreement is essential in the next week or two to give appropriators the time they need to hammer out full-year spending bills ahead of the next deadline, Jan. 19, according to veterans of the appropriations process.

House and Senate Appropriations committee staffers are preparing for an eventual deal and working on what they can without an agreement. For example, aides are documenting differences between the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bills that will have to be addressed in negotiations. 

But the more time passes without a topline agreement, the more likely another stopgap funding measure gets. However, Johnson says House Republicans will not back another short-term spending patch, necessitating a deal on spending levels this month. Without an agreement, Johnson has threatened to put a full-year continuing resolution on the floor that would cut nondefense spending.

Another factor in the slow pace of spending talks is they’ve taken a back seat to final negotiations on the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill, sources said. Armed Services committee leaders are expected to unveil their NDAA conference report this week, and the Senate will likely vote first on it. 

Some sources point the finger at Johnson and his team for not coming to the table to hammer out a topline appropriations agreement. A Johnson spokesman said the speaker is working on both the NDAA and appropriations processes concurrently. 

“Fighting for wins on defense policy and changing Washington’s approach to spending both remain top priorities for the speaker and the leadership,” the spokesman said. 

Also, getting the NDAA out of the way first could serve to lock lawmakers in to the higher $886 billion security-related topline both chambers’ bills would authorize, a 3 percent annual increase in line with this spring’s debt limit law.

With both chambers on record with bipartisan majorities in favor of that defense spending boost, it could enhance GOP leaders’ ability to push down the total nondefense topline, at least outside of the departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. Otherwise, it could mean going above the total discretionary spending ceiling of $1.59 trillion for fiscal 2024 in the debt limit law.

That law calls for a nondefense ceiling of $704 billion in fiscal 2024 — on paper a 5 percent or $40 billion reduction. But a “side deal” President Joe Biden and ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agreed to called for eliminating that reduction through various accounting maneuvers and keeping domestic and foreign aid accounts essentially flat-funded.

Johnson wasn’t a party to that side agreement, however, and now House Freedom Caucus-led conservatives are pushing him to ignore it.

Meanwhile Senate Democrats and Republicans previously agreed to the debt ceiling deal’s numbers, both in the text and the side agreement — while adding nearly $14 billion for good measure, including $8 billion more for defense.

Seven weeks to go

Funding for agencies covered under four of the dozen bills runs out Jan. 19, while the other eight bills are funded until Feb. 2 under the most recent continuing resolution. 

Both chambers have spent time this year advancing their own appropriations bills to set up these endgame negotiations. However, neither chamber has floor time set aside this week to consider appropriations bills. 

House Republicans have passed seven of the 12 bills, and party leaders are continuing to work with the GOP conference to address the issues that have stalled the remaining five, sources say. That’s another issue that has taken time away from aiming for a bicameral, bipartisan deal.

But serious policy and spending-level differences in the conference have stymied earlier attempts to pass those five bills, and it will be an uphill battle for Republicans to get any more of those bills across the finish line. 

The five bills the chamber has not passed are the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Financial Services, Labor-HHS-Education and Transportation-HUD measures. 

The Senate has passed a package with three of their bills, the Agriculture, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD measures. Those are the three bills that face a deadline in January, along with Energy-Water. 

But despite a push from Senate ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, for Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to put another package on the floor in December, there is no indication that Schumer will do so. For now, Schumer, D-N.Y., and his party are focused on Biden’s $106 billion emergency supplemental package for the wars in Israel and Ukraine, among other purposes, which itself has been stymied due to a partisan dispute over border policy.

The House’s last scheduled day in session this year is Dec. 14; the Senate’s is the following day, although Schumer has threatened to keep the chamber in session longer in order to pass the supplemental.

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