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Tall order for lawmakers to finish spending bills next week

Portions of federal government will start to shut down March 1 unless Congress acts

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., pictured at a news conference after Republicans' weekly conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., pictured at a news conference after Republicans' weekly conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Twenty percent of annual appropriations for the current fiscal year are due a week from Friday or portions of the government will shut down. Critical final decisions about those spending bills’ contents or the process for getting them across the finish line haven’t yet been made, however, and lawmakers are still on recess until next week.

The Senate returns Monday, only to face impeachment articles the House adopted seeking removal of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from office. The chamber could quickly dismiss the charges or hold a longer trial as some conservatives are demanding; either way, it’s a constitutional prerogative that must be dealt with first.

The House, meanwhile, isn’t back until Wednesday. That means the latest congressional leaders could theoretically release the text and still adhere to House rules requiring the legislation to be publicly available in advance is Monday. 

But even assuming the House can pass the spending package as soon as Wednesday — possibly under suspension of the rules — that leaves little time for the Senate to process it by the end of the day Friday. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other Senate hard-liners have shown a willingness to delay must-pass bills on several occasions, even if it’s clear they don’t have the votes to block them.

All of these factors have led to speculation that lawmakers may be forced to punt final action for a week with a short-term stopgap measure, lining up the first package of bills currently expiring March 1 with the remaining eight bills that lapse March 8.

Sources familiar with the talks said many of the outstanding issues with the four bills in the first tranche — Military Construction-VA, Agriculture, Energy-Water and Transportation-HUD — have been closed out, with the remaining open items kicked up to leadership to make decisions on. 

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is under heavy pressure from conservatives to eke out some policy victories despite Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, however. That could hold up final decisions, sources said, though some said it appeared at least the first four bills, theoretically those with the most bipartisan backing, are on track for passage next week.

Another possibility is that while two or three of the bills are ready to go next week, one or two are not and therefore need a short-term extension, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

Homeland, supplemental issues

The second batch of bills is proving a heavier lift, with some sources arguing they don’t see how Congress will avoid another temporary continuing resolution to avoid a partial shutdown March 8.

Some of the key battles in play involve Homeland Security spending bill negotiations, with the two parties far apart on an agreement.

Earlier, appropriators agreed on an allocation of roughly $61.8 billion, not counting a separate allotment for disaster aid. That’s about $1 billion less than the House-passed bill, and GOP negotiators want to allocate more funds to border enforcement while Democrats are seeking more funding for employee pay raises and to keep existing services from losing ground to inflation, a source familiar with the talks said.

Separately, supplemental funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan hangs in the balance after the Senate-passed, $95 billion package ran into a brick wall in the House. A slimmed-down, bipartisan $66 billion measure including border restrictions has backing in that chamber, but there’s still no clear path.

Given the Defense and State-Foreign Operations bills are part of the second tranche of bills expiring next month, there will be considerable pressure on Johnson to attach pieces of the foreign aid and war funding supplemental to one of the fiscal 2024 appropriations packages.

But with conservatives threatening to overthrow Johnson, a complex discharge petition process to go around leadership and bring a bill directly to the floor may be the better option so he can avoid direct responsibility. Nonetheless, the drama surrounding a supplemental could throw sand in the gears of trying to wrap up final fiscal 2024 spending packages. 

For now, House GOP leaders say they aren’t entertaining any more stopgap extensions, however. “You are not going to get another continuing resolution out of our conference,” Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., told Bloomberg Television last week.

Emmer projected confidence that all of the bills would get done on time. “I know that one of them, they were trying to close out today, there may be several others they were trying to close out today,” Emmer said in the interview, which aired Thursday.

Another potential issue that has yet to be worked out is the packaging strategy for the dozen bills. Emmer said he thinks there will be “three or four” separate combinations, rather than the typical omnibus measure comprising all 12 that’s been popular in recent years.

“The key is going to be, what are the packages put on the floor, and what’s going to drive the votes that will get them across the line,” he said. “But we should be there before the first deadline of March 1.”

However, the Senate is more amenable to just two packages given how time-consuming it is to move bills across the floor in that chamber, according to sources.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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