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Critical spending decisions await Tuesday White House meeting

Negotiators are frozen on policy disputes with just days to go before shutdown deadline

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., the House's top Agriculture bill negotiator, has some demands.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., the House's top Agriculture bill negotiator, has some demands. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​Senators returned to Washington on Monday with scant sign of the elusive spending breakthrough that will be needed to avoid a partial government shutdown at the end of the day Friday. 

Agencies covered under the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD bills would see their funding lapse Saturday unless a deal can be reached, although in reality Monday morning when federal workers would otherwise report to work is when any impacts would be felt. 

Appropriators are still aiming to get final fiscal 2024 appropriations for the first slate of bills done by Friday, sources familiar with the talks say. But time is running short, and lawmakers are working on stopgap funding extensions as a backup plan, sources say.

The first four appropriations bills are close to being completed, Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Monday. But it’s not clear if they will be able to wrap those up without another continuing resolution, he said. 

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks during the a news conference in the Capitol on Jan. 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“I think those bills are very close to going, I think it’s just small [things],” he said. “I think the four bills we are talking about could get done by the end of the week.”

Legislative text for the first batch of bills due Friday is unlikely to be released before Tuesday’s 11:30 a.m. meeting between congressional leaders and President Joe Biden, sources say. If an agreement is reached, the House would begin the process by bringing final bills to the floor in that chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday that senators should keep their schedules flexible as there is uncertainty about how the House will proceed this week.  

“While we’ve made some good progress on a number of fronts, unfortunately our House Republican colleagues are still struggling to figure themselves out,” Schumer said, echoing a letter he sent to colleagues Sunday night.

Into this world we’re thrown

Schumer and Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., reached a topline spending deal last month and appropriators hammered out subcommittee spending allocations a few weeks later. 

But there has not been an agreement on policy riders, after House Republicans added hundreds of provisions to their bills sought by conservatives on issues ranging from gun rights to abortion access to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

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

Johnson appears to be on an island in his push for riders, however. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that “poison pill” riders must be removed from the bills to avoid a shutdown this week. 

“We have the means — and just enough time this week — to avoid a shutdown and make serious headway on annual appropriations,” McConnell said. “But as always, the task at hand will require that everyone rows in the same direction: toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.”

The Transportation-HUD measure is close to being wrapped up, Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Chair Brian Schatz said Monday.

He said the first four bills are in good shape, but it’s up to Johnson to walk away from the “poison pill” riders House Republicans want.

“The overall environment just depends on whether U.S. House Republicans are going to be able to perform their most basic responsibility,” Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “It is beyond unusual for a political party to agree to a spending deal, and then having challenges enacting it.”

Some less controversial riders that have little to do with culturally divisive topics could potentially squeak through, particularly those affecting the home states and districts of Democrats as well as Republicans.

Still, House Republicans are making last-ditch attempts to secure wins on abortion and gun riders in the first batch of bills — including the hugely popular Military Construction-VA measure.

The House’s version of the bill included a provision that would block the Department of Veterans Affairs from implementing a rule that would remove exclusions of abortion and related counseling services from veterans’ benefits packages. 

Another provision in the bill, which was added on the floor, would prevent the VA from automatically sending veterans’ names to the Justice Department for a criminal background check if they ask for help managing their finances. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System conducts checks on any individual seeking to buy firearms or explosives.

The NICS provision, authored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., was added as an amendment on the floor with a handful of Democratic votes joining nearly all Republicans. 

Complicating Democratic leaders’ attempts to knock the rider out is the fact that a similar amendment was added on the Senate floor to that chamber’s version. The amendment from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., was adopted on a 53-45 vote, also with a handful of votes from the other side of the aisle.

SNAP, WIC dispute

Disagreements over restricting food choices for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients and a low-income nutrition program has held up agreement on the Agriculture bill, which also funds the Food and Drug Administration.

Sources say Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., that panel’s subcommittee chairman, is insisting that in exchange for adding about $1 billion to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children food program, budget negotiators preserve his provision to create a pilot program to require more nutritious foods in SNAP.

The House’s Agriculture bill includes the pilot program championed by Harris, and it would also flat-fund the WIC program at the prior-year level.

Democrats and the Biden administration have pressed to add about $1 billion in funding to the WIC program. Without it, they say, there will not be enough money to continue to provide the current level of benefits to recipients.

One source said Republicans have agreed to add some funding for the WIC program, but not the full $1 billion sought by Democrats.

The Harris provision would appropriate $2 million for up to five pilot projects that would restrict SNAP purchases to “nutrient-dense foods and beverages” with the aim of improving health and cutting costs.

In an recent op-ed, Harris, who is a physician, and co-author Angela Rachidi of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said 40 percent of SNAP recipients are obese and that soft drinks are among the top purchases of SNAP recipients.

The pilot proposal has drawn an onslaught of opposition from food retailers including The Kroger Co., the National Grocers Association, the American Beverage Association and National Milk Producers Federation.

In a Feb. 6 letter to congressional leaders, those organizations argued that the restrictions would deprive recipients of free choice in food and create a costly burden on retailers to enforce the restriction.

“Whether a pilot or a statewide or national restriction, stores would be particularly burdened by managing the data and determination of eligibility for the more than 20,000 new food and beverage items introduced each year, requiring programming any updates into computer systems to ensure compliance,” they wrote.

In a separate letter, the National Grocers Association and some 2,472 businesses and trade associations said under the Harris provision that “grocery store cashiers will become the food police, telling parents what they can and cannot feed their families.”

Sources said Harris and House Republican leaders also continue to advocate for their Agriculture bill’s provision to bar the FDA from allowing the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone to be dispensed in pharmacies and through the mail. That’s despite a revolt on the floor from moderate House Republicans in tough races that helped to sink the measure in that chamber.

Heavier lift

The remaining bills that are due March 8 are generally considered a heavier lift, and a CR through March 22 is under consideration for at least some of those, sources say.

Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chair Christopher S. Murphy said the subcommittee had “a lot of issues” elevated to the leadership level.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., speaks about the bipartisan border deal during the Senate Democrats’ press conference in the Capitol on Feb. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Murphy, D-Conn., said he hoped House Republicans would not derail the bill by insisting on riders that cannot pass the Senate. “The House Republicans did not give their subcommittees a lot of room to negotiate, so we didn’t make as much progress as we normally do,” he said.

A few of the March 8 bills appear to be on track to get done more or less on time, including Defense and Interior-Environment. The Defense bill is “coming along fine,” that bill’s Senate subcommittee chair, Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Monday. And Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Monday that talks on his bill, the smallest of the 12, are going well.

Even Senate Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chair Tammy Baldwin, who manages possibly the toughest bill from both a funding and policy perspective, said talks are moving in a positive direction. Baldwin, D-Wis., said she is hopeful the “handful” of remaining issues can be dealt with quickly.

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