Specter of Shutdown Returns as Work on Spending Bills Stalls

By Nancy Ognanovich

The specter of a shutdown has returned to the Capitol, where lawmakers’ talk increasingly is turning to ways to keep the government’s money flowing after they miss a Dec. 8 deadline to finish this year’s spending bills.

With an all-consuming focus on pushing through an overhaul of tax policy, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remain tight-lipped about plans for wrapping up this year’s spending bills, leading lawmakers in both chambers to openly discuss options for heading off a crisis when the stopgap now funding the government lapses next month.

As GOP leaders lay out plans to move sweeping tax bills to the floors of both chambers, members of both parties said they don’t see any feasible way to have a 12-bill omnibus spending package finished and passed by the time the continuing resolution runs out. Some said that even a move to buy them more time with a new CR running to New Year’s Eve doesn’t ensure the government will have its 2018 funding by then or prevent a standoff with President Donald Trump.

The government’s funding has been provided by a CR since the start of its new fiscal year Oct. 1 as none of the 12 regular spending bills have been completed and sent to Trump’s desk for signature. The government faces furloughs and disruptions unless Congress manages to pass the omnibus or another stopgap by Dec. 8.

At stake is at least $1.2 trillion in annual discretionary funds, including what lawmakers hope will be a large increase—in the range of $70 billion—for Pentagon programs. Also vulnerable to a political stalemate is disaster aid in the billions of dollars expected to be attached to the omnibus.

“My worry is that if we try to load that up too much we’ll end up with a continuing resolution—which would be a disaster, in more ways than one,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters.

Stopgap to New Year’s Eve?

Ryan plans to bring a tax cut package to the House floor the week of Nov. 13 and Cornyn said McConnell plans to delay a planned recess the week of Nov. 20 in order to have tax legislation through that chamber by Thanksgiving. But neither have outlined plans to complete the spending bills by the deadline.

The fate of the appropriations bills is linked to progress in bipartisan talks aimed at once again providing relief from the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending caps. Those talks involve Ryan, McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the White House. The goal is to be able to give appropriators a better allocation so they can rewrite their bills at levels that can gain enough political support to pass.

Schumer repeatedly suggested that lawmakers will try to buy themselves more time with a CR running to Dec. 31.

“There are talks going on with the four corners about numbers but obviously tax reform makes it a lot harder for them to do the things we have to do by Dec. 31st,” he told reporters.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, however, that he isn’t encouraged by what he has heard lately.

“What Chuck Schumer described is the most preliminary talks,” said Durbin, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, where lawmakers have held back the Pentagon spending bill from markup while waiting for negotiators to give them a better allocation.

Durbin said he is concerned that rather than an omnibus with a large Defense increase appropriators could be looking at a shutdown.

“Very much so. With the tax bill front and center taking up all of our attention and time for the next several weeks we’re going to be bumping up against the Dec. 8 deadline with many planes circling,” Durbin said.

Durbin said he won’t support a CR going to Dec. 31 or into next year.

“There are things that have to be done by the end of the calendar year: [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], children’s health insurance, community health clinics—to name a few,” Durbin said.

Ghosts of 2013 Shutdown

But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she and other lawmakers are determined to avoid any repeat of the 2013 shutdown that lasted more than two weeks and rattled financial markets. Collins said she is working with a bipartisan group of House and Senate members to discuss ways to avoid a shutdown.

“We put together the framework that led to the reopening of government” in 2013, Collins said at an event with other members of the “No Labels” coalition, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Collins, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee, said the best strategy is for appropriators to have their work done and their bills ready when leaders give them new numbers. Collins acknowledged that Senate Appropriations has delayed markups on Defense and three other bills more than once but still insisted they are all written and ready to go.

“I’m optimistic that there’s going to be a budget agreement,” Collins said. “I know the talks are ongoing and I believe we’ll be able to get an agreement on both the Defense and non-defense spending.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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