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Biden, ‘Big Four’ to meet as spending talks sputter

No sign of breakthrough ahead of March 1 funding deadline

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., attend a Menorah lighting to celebrate Hanukkah in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., attend a Menorah lighting to celebrate Hanukkah in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden plans to meet with the top four congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday after weekend negotiations on the first batch of spending bills due Friday to avert a partial government shutdown appeared to stall out. 

Each side blamed the other Sunday night for the lack of progress on the four appropriations bills that have a March 1 deadline — Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD. Those bills represent around 20 percent of federal agencies’ fiscal 2024 discretionary funds, and while a short shutdown wouldn’t be debilitating, some key activities would cease, like loans to farmers and hiring and training new air traffic controllers.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to colleagues that he had hoped to announce a deal on Sunday night, but that Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republicans have been unwilling to compromise.

“[I]t is clear now that House Republicans need more time to sort themselves out,” Schumer wrote. “It is my sincere hope that in the face of a disruptive shutdown that would hurt our economy and make American families less safe, Speaker Johnson will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing.”

For his part, Johnson, R-La., called Schumer’s missive “counterproductive” and said it fails to acknowledge “good faith” attempts to reach an agreement. He blamed the current impasse on late-stage Democratic demands in the talks “that were not previously included in the Senate bills,” including new spending “priorities that are farther left than what their chamber agreed upon.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what last-minute issues Democrats have raised.

One issue that Democrats have been pushing for months is extra funding for USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The Biden administration estimates a $1 billion boost above the fiscal 2023 level is needed to prevent states from needing to make “difficult, untenable decisions about how to manage the program,” including putting eligible beneficiaries on waiting lists. The House Agriculture bill would flat-fund the program at the prior year’s level; Senate appropriators found room for a $300 million increase in their bill, but that still wouldn’t be enough to cover the WIC shortfall.

And the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that even the more generous Senate version of the Transportation-HUD bill falls nearly $1 billion short of what’s needed to maintain low-income rental housing subsidies for about 80,000 families.

In his response to Schumer, Johnson also threw in another plug for stepped-up border security, which has been among the chief holdups to a deal on supplemental funding for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and other purposes. The Senate-passed $95 billion package has hit a wall in the House, though a bipartisan group is trying to get military aid unstuck with a slimmer $66 billion version. Tuesday’s White House meeting will touch on the stalled emergency supplemental as well.

As of Friday night, Johnson had expressed some optimism on a conference call with GOP lawmakers that at least some of the spending bills due Friday could pass in time, and that he was working on securing Republican wins in the deal. But even before the weekend talks, several sources pushed back on the idea that final bills would be ready for posting on Sunday night, with Monday or Tuesday considered more likely.

Funding for the remaining agencies covered by the other eight fiscal 2024 spending bills is set to run out a week later, on March 8. But negotiators have been farther apart on most of those bills, with the possible exceptions of Defense and Interior-Environment spending measures, according to sources. And Biden’s State of the Union address will eat up a chunk of lawmakers’ evenings on March 7.

A stopgap funding extension to March 22 has been under consideration for bills not completed by then.

Paul M. Krawzak and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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