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Window rapidly closing for deal on appropriations framework

Without knowing what numbers to use, appropriators can't write their bills which are due Jan. 19 and Feb. 2

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sees a shutdown on the horizon.
House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sees a shutdown on the horizon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress appears poised to leave town before Christmas without a topline spending agreement, which could doom the chances of getting full-fledged fiscal 2024 appropriations bills done in January.

If there’s no deal on spending limits this week, lawmakers will essentially be out of time to work out the details of the 12 annual appropriations bills by Jan. 19, the first of two deadlines set in the last continuing resolution. The next deadline is Feb. 2, leaving little time to complete the last, larger batch of bills, particularly with the House scheduled to be in recess the week of Jan. 22.

House Republicans remain far apart from both parties in the Senate and House Democrats on the total allocations appropriators have to parcel out to the dozen subcommittees so they can wrap up their bills.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is pushing for the overall $1.59 trillion level set in the text of the debt limit law or as close to it as possible, tossing aside some if not all of the $69 billion in extra nondefense spending agreed to in a “side deal” in those negotiations.

“What we also agreed to was what is written in the law, which is the [debt limit law] numbers on topline,” Johnson said Tuesday. “The Senate has been projecting and writing well above that, to, I don’t know, billions of dollars. That’s not what the law says.”

[Top Senate appropriators detail full-year stopgap impacts]

Eliminating the side deal would cut nondefense spending by around 9 percent below fiscal 2023 levels on average, a nonstarter for Democrats. And the Senate wants to spend even more than that pact envisioned, having added almost $14 billion in emergency spending to the fiscal 2024 appropriations bills, $8 billion of which is for the Pentagon.

Johnson said House Republicans have sent the Senate an offer and are waiting on a counteroffer from the Senate. He said two sides are at an “impasse.”

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Tuesday that Johnson must accept the “full” deal that House Republicans made with the White House, which would include the additional spending.

“I hope the speaker hears me loud and clear: Get back to the full deal that you cut, that you voted for, and let’s do our jobs,” she said.

‘Slush fund’

As a refresher, the side agreement’s $69 billion in “adjustments” to nondefense spending included the following components:

  • The traditional $15 billion in “changes in mandatory programs,” or CHIMPs, that block mandatory spending in a given fiscal year without actually producing any savings but frees up money for discretionary appropriations; both parties have blessed that arrangement in the past.
  • Another $10 billion in CHIMPs on top of the traditional amount.
  • $10 billion rescinded from IRS appropriations in the 2022 climate and health care reconciliation package.
  • $23 billion in regular appropriations designated as “emergencies” that can skirt spending caps.
  • $11 billion rescinded from money appropriated in the debt limit law for the Commerce Department’s “Nonrecurring Expenses” fund, which was injected full of cash to be used for other purposes during the fiscal 2024 appropriations process.

And leading Freedom Caucus figures like Chip Roy, R-Texas, are pushing their leadership to hold firm. Roy introduced legislation Tuesday to rescind the entire $22 billion parked in the Commerce “slush fund,” as he calls it — half made available for this year, half for fiscal 2025 in the debt limit law — immediately so it can’t be used to offset additional spending.

“Appropriators have long used sleight of hand to hide the actual level of spending included in massive appropriations bills. Unfortunately, that practice is alive and well,” Roy said in a statement of the bill he introduced with Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., and a group of other Republicans.

Schweikert voted for the debt limit law, as did a few of Roy’s other co-sponsors: Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Chief Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania, himself an Appropriations panel member, and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina.

‘Holding pattern’

Appropriators of both parties are growing increasingly agitated as the waiting for a topline accord continues. They are currently in a “holding pattern,” as House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart put it.

“Obviously, we needed it yesterday,” Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said Tuesday.

House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack said Tuesday he is “frustrated” by the lack of a topline.

Womack, R-Ark., said he’s asked Johnson’s policy director, Dan Ziegler, when the “drop dead” date is for a topline deal in order to meet the Jan. 19 deadline, to which Ziegler said “right away.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Womack said. “I don’t know if that’s this week, or next week, or the first week in January.”

Womack said leadership understands that it will take a lot of work from appropriations staff to get the bills finalized following the topline agreement, and members also need to understand that.

“You don’t just magically put this stuff together,” Womack said. “Changing these numbers requires just a ton of work on the part of staff, and we’re just going to abuse these people because we can’t get our act together.”

Veterans of the appropriations process estimate that this week is the latest possible week for a topline agreement in order to meet the Jan. 19 deadline, which would require appropriations staff to work through the holidays to negotiate final bills.

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she did not see a path forward for an appropriations deal given the position expressed by Johnson and his House GOP colleagues.

“I think we’re headed to seeing a government shutdown,” said DeLauro, who predicted back in May that Republicans might try to renege on the side agreement.

DeLauro said Republicans need to figure out what they want to do as Democrats will not move away from the debt limit deal. She said the debt limit negotiations also settled that there would be no new policy riders in the final appropriations agreement, though others have disputed that claim.

“The other piece, is no one is saying anything about riders,” she said. “In the agreement, it said no riders. These people want to pursue [riders], then we’re stuck forever.”

What’s next

With Johnson vowing not to do any more short-term spending patches, the options for January are getting more narrow by the day.

With full-year appropriations possibly unworkable without a topline deal this week, that would leave two alternatives ahead of the first deadline: a full-year continuing resolution or a partial government shutdown.

Due to the spending caps in the debt limit law, a full-year “date change” CR would lead to across-the-board nondefense spending cuts that Senate and House Democrats and Senate Republicans are desperate to avoid.

Even some swing-district House Republicans could get squeamish at cuts at the levels the debt limit deal would inflict in this scenario, though Johnson is threatening this path to encourage Democrats to move in his direction on spending levels.

To win Democratic votes, a full-year CR would likely need spending levels and adjustments to alleviate the pain on nondefense programs. It would also take time to negotiate, and unless all parties agree to take that path in coming weeks, there may not be time to write a stopgap bill covering the rest of the year that would be amenable to all parties.

Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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