WASHINGTON — A bitter fight over funding for border fencing is imperiling Capitol Hill efforts to forge progress on more than $1.4 trillion worth of overdue spending bills, one of the few areas in which divided government in Washington has been able to deliver results in the Trump era.
Poisonous political fallout from the ongoing impeachment battle isn’t helping matters. While it appears likely that lawmakers will prevent a government shutdown next month with a government-wide stopgap spending bill, there has been little progress, if any, on the tricky trade-offs needed to balance Democratic demands for social programs with President Donald Trump’s ballooning border wall demands.
Even an expected Senate vote on Thursday to pass a $209 billion bundle of four bipartisan spending bills isn’t regarded as much progress, especially since it will be followed by a Democratic filibuster of a massive Pentagon spending bill.
At issue are the agency appropriations bills that Congress passes each year to keep the government running. A hard-won budget and debt deal this summer produced a top-line framework for the 12 yearly spending bills, but filling in the details is proving difficult.
Democrats say White House demands for $5 billion for Trump’s long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall have led the GOP-controlled Senate to shortchange Democratic domestic priorities.
They say negotiations can’t begin in earnest until spending hikes permitted under the July budget deal are allocated among the 12 appropriations subcommittees more to their liking. Trump is demanding a huge border funding increase that comes mostly at the expense of a major health and education spending bill.
“I am not optimistic,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “I don’t see the Senate taking action that would enable us to have an active negotiation with them. They haven’t set the groundwork. And until they figure out the (subcommittee allocations) — although we are having very nice conversations — I don’t see progress.”
Current stopgap spending authority expires Nov. 21 and another measure will be needed to prevent a shutdown reprising last year’s 35-day partial shuttering of the government. All sides want to avert a repeat shutdown, but it can’t be entirely ruled out because of the dysfunction and bitterness engulfing Washington these days.
Staff discussions on a new stopgap continuing resolution, or CR in Capitol Hill shorthand, haven’t yielded agreement yet. Democrats, including Lowey, have floated the idea of a stopgap CR into February, which would likely punt the budget battle past any Senate impeachment trial.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is pressing for a CR of shorter duration in hopes of wrapping up the unfinished budget work by Christmas. McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke by telephone on Monday, congressional aides said, in hopes of breaking the logjam.
“I think that McConnell clearly wants to get this done before the end of the year, which is good news,” said No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who also spoke with McConnell. “He doesn’t want it to go into next year, nor do I.”
But no progress was made at a follow-up staff session on Tuesday that included White House representatives. The White House is playing a strong hand on the border wall since it has begun employing its transfer authorities to shift billions of dollars of Pentagon funding toward wall construction — far more than it has obtained through the regular funding process.
The White House is demanding $5 billion in appropriations for the wall this budget year — up from $1.4 billion — and it is also demanding to keep its powers to transfer Pentagon dollars as well — and to get Congress to refill Pentagon military base construction projects tapped last month to pay for up to $3.6 billion worth of border fencing.
“Completely unproductive,” reported a senior Democratic aide who requested anonymity to describe the closed-door session.
For their part, Senate Democrats are refusing to allow the $700 billion Pentagon bill to advance, protesting the controversial wall funding gimmicks — and holding it back as leverage to counter White House power moves. They filibustered the measure last month and McConnell is forcing a re-vote as soon as Thursday.
“There is such animosity and bitterness and confrontation, it’s going to be really difficult to get agreement on anything,” said former Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “So I worry about whether or not we can even pass a CR.”
Andrew Taylor, The Associated Press