Dec. 1 — Congressional negotiations over the details of a must-pass plan to fund the federal government are intensifying as the deadline nears to head off the threat of another government shutdown in a week’s time.
As talks continued in the Capitol, lawmakers in both parties said they don’t expect to see final details of the must-pass continuing resolution (CR) until House and Senate Republican leaders are ready to bring the measure to the floors of both chambers. Lawmakers said the new CR now isn’t likely to move any earlier than Dec. 8—or a day before a current stopgap expires.
Senior lawmakers said they now expect the CR will extend current funding to almost May to give the incoming Trump administration final say over fiscal year 2017 spending.
The decision to fund the government for almost another five months via stopgaps is drawing criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, raising questions about how Republican leaders will move the measure across the Capitol in time to prevent any funding lapse.
Passage of some type of spending bill is necessary because only one of the 12 regular FY 2017 bills was finalized and sent to President Barack Obama’s desk. Without a stopgap, funding will expire and agencies will be forced to cut back operations.
Democrats said their support may hinge on the final details of the CR, including what type of supplemental funding it provides for their priorities, such as aid to Flint, Mich.
The White House said it has serious concerns about the impact a long-term CR will have on the Defense Department, in particular.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned lawmakers in a letter, obtained by Bloomberg BNA, that a CR extending to May would hamstring the ability of the department to initiate a number of programs critical to national security, in addition to limiting the work of the military and overseas operations.
“The concerns that he’s raised are quite significant, and the concerns that he’s expressed are shared by the commander-in-chief,” Earnest said.
Aides said the emerging scenario calls for the House and Senate to pass a few other priority items, such as the Department of Defense authorization bill, while keeping the new CR and the final version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) until late in the week. As a result, they said, the CR and WRDA bills likely won’t be filed until well into the week of Dec. 5.
That time line suggests negotiations over the details of the CR and WRDA will continue over the weekend and beyond. And, without a look at a final bill, Democrats said they can’t say whether the CR will get their votes.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said Democrats don’t oppose Republican efforts to include disaster assistance for Louisiana and other states damaged by storms. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he is hopeful the CR will carry more than $2 billion in extra monies for his home state.
“But we also need help for Flint,” Mikulski said. “So it’s all tied together.”
Aides said it is likely that the WRDA bill will include language to facilitate federal assistance for Flint, while the CR will carry the actual funds the Michigan delegation has been seeking for months.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she doesn’t know if the CR and WRDA will be “married” together before they are given final approval.
“At this point, we’re working on language. We’ll have to see what the path forward is,” Stabenow told reporters.
Stabenow said Democrats question Republican plans to use another CR running into May to fund the government. Combined with the current CR, stopgaps would be used to cover the first seven months of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
“There’s a real concern about that, just in terms of the timing of a new [FY 2018] budget and appropriations that has to be done,” Stabenow said.
Republicans on the Appropriations Committee also said they wanted to finish this year’s bills, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was forced to yield to the wishes of House Republicans and the Trump transition team to instead write another CR.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team and the Appropriations Committee, said there is concern that there could be yet another CR in the wings after the next one runs out in May.
“That will obviously be the question that comes up between now and the end of April: Is it better to go ahead and get the ’17 bills finished or just CR the rest of that year and start on FY ’18?” Blunt said.
Blunt, chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee, said he is sorry to see his bill shelved.
“You know, we had the first bipartisan bill out of the subcommittee I chair in seven years, eliminated 30 programs totally, created a focus on opioids and health-care research way beyond what the 21st Century Cures Act bill does,” Blunt said. “And I’d like to see all that done. But that doesn’t mean I won’t vote for the CR.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters he can’t support a CR running to May, particularly if it doesn’t include the $11.6 billion Obama recently requested for the Pentagon and State Department to conduct operations overseas.
“This is a lousy way to do this, and I’m not going to vote for it,” Graham, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said.
Even worse, he said, would be a decision to completely punt on FY 2017 next spring.
“There’ll be hell to pay,” if the Pentagon and other agencies are put on “autopilot” for a year, Graham said.
In the letter, the Defense secretary urged McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to keep the CR as short as possible and keep a commitment to finishing the 2017 bills.
“A short-term CR is bad enough, but a CR through May means DOD would have to operate under its constraints for two-thirds of the fiscal year,” Carter said. “This is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we have so many troops operating in harm’s way. I strongly urge Congress to reject this approach.”
Carter said the longer the CR, the more harm will be done to Pentagon programs and national security.
“DOD is tasked with acting in real time to defend our interests in a rapidly changing global security environment, but under a CR, we are locked into last year’s budget with last year’s priorities,” Carter said. “The most problematic shortfalls DOD will face in a long-term CR are in the operations and munitions accounts that fund counterterrorism operations and assistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, among other priorities. Moreover, the European Reassurance Initiative, poised for a quadrupling in FY 17, would be hamstrung at FY16 levels. These are areas we cannot afford to short-change.”
Carter warned that the Pentagon also won’t have the authority to start new programs, increase production rates or initiate multi-year procurement.
“In FY ’17 alone, we need 57 new starts and 86 production increases, all of which would be delayed for the duration of a CR,” he said. “As a result, the CR would undermine critical programs such as the KC-46 Tanker, Apache and Blackhawk helicopter procurements and the Ohio Replacement submarine. Failure to continue these programs as planned will cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars in needless contractual penalties.”
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