The Washington Post

Short-term spending deal eyed again

GOP aims to avoid another shutdown, but divisions remain

- BY ERICA WERNER AND MIKE DEBONIS

white sulphur springs, w.va. — With a shutdown deadline looming Feb. 8 and no long-term deal at hand, congressio­nal Republican leaders said Thursday they will have to pass yet another short-term spending bill next week to keep the government open.

House GOP leaders are eyeing a spending bill through March 22, aides said, though that date could change. It would have to pass early next week, as government funding is set to expire at the end of next Thursday. Without a new funding agreement, the government would shut down, as it did for three days in January.

Yet attempts to reach a longerterm deal have faltered amid a larger dispute over immigratio­n and disagreeme­nt between the two parties about spending levels, as well as reluctance among some conservati­ves to sign off on massive new government spending in an election year. The threeday partial shutdown late last month was precipitat­ed by Senate Democrats’ demands for protection­s for undocument­ed immigrants brought to the United States as children, called “dreamers,” an issue that remains unresolved.

As Republican­s gathered at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for their annual retreat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) insisted the government would stay open.

“I don’t think we’ll see a threatened government shutdown again over this subject,” he said. “One of my favorite old Kentucky country sayings is ‘ There’s no education in the second kick of a mule,’ so I think there’ll be a new level of seriousnes­s here in trying to resolve these issues.”

Even so, it seemed unlikely that House and Senate negotiator­s would be able to strike the bipartisan, two-year budget deal they are striving for ahead of Feb. 8. Even if they do, lawmakers would need weeks to turn agreed-upon figures into complete spending bills for all the agencies of government.

Next week’s stopgap legislatio­n would be the fifth short-term “continuing resolution” of this fiscal year, a situation that is causing frustratio­n and fingerpoin­ting on all sides. That includes within GOP ranks, which could jeopardize passage of the resolution as conservati­ve lawmakers and defense hawks both threatened Thursday to withhold their votes.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservati­ve House Freedom Caucus, said his group might not support another short-term spending bill without promises of action on higher military spending levels and other issues.

“I don’t see the probabilit­y of the Freedom Caucus supporting a fifth CR without substantia­l changes by Feb. 8 unless we see dramatic changes,” Meadows told reporters. “We’ve had the land of promise for four times now on CRs. It’s time to put some real commitment to the effort before a fifth CR.”

Defense hawks in the House have grown increasing­ly frustrated with the multiple short-term spending bills, contending that they threaten military readiness and cost lives, since the Pentagon is not getting the money it needs.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters after a closed-door session with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that both Cabinet members were insisting on an end to short-term spending bills.

“The secretarie­s were very clear, I think, in encouragin­g Congress to resolve the budget issues and end the continuing resolution­s so that they can manage their department­s,” Thornberry said, “and more importantl­y, so the world knows that we are functionin­g and can do whatever needs to be done to protect the national security of the United States.”

Thornberry refused to commit to voting for the continuing resolution expected on the floor next week.

“We’re just going to have to see what the situation is when it arrives. Obviously there’s a lot of conversati­on among members at this retreat about the way forward,” he said. “Nobody wants a government shutdown, but we also cannot continue to inflict the damage that CRs inflict on the military. We can’t keep doing that.”

Overall discretion­ary spending levels — funding for education, housing, defense and much more — are capped under a 2011 law, and exceeding those limits requires bipartisan agreement under Senate filibuster rules. Republican­s are trying to negotiate an enormous increase in military spending in the pending budget deal, which Democrats hope to match with domestic spending.

Budget deals passed under President Barack Obama in 2013 and 2015 proceeded along those lines. But now, with Republican­s in the White House and in control of both houses of Congress, GOP lawmakers want to pursue a tougher posture.

Meadows and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, suggested they might be willing to live with an increase in nondefense spending as long as the extra funding is devoted to infrastruc­ture, a major congressio­nal agenda item for the Trump administra­tion. There is no indication that Democrats, who are pushing for new investment­s to combat the opioid crisis and beef up veterans’ benefits, would agree to those terms.

“Obviously we’re probably going to need a short-term CR,” said Thune, while acknowledg­ing little progress has been made since last month’s shutdown.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pushed back at suggestion­s of an impasse, declaring in a terse statement Thursday that “discussion on the caps deal is going very well.”

The need to raise the federal debt limit is further complicati­ng the budget negotiatio­ns. The Congressio­nal Budget Office said Wednesday that the limit will have to be raised above its current $20 trillion level by the first half of March — earlier than expected because of the GOP’s recent tax-cut legislatio­n. The last increase was passed in September as part of a temporary spending agreement brokered between President Trump and congressio­nal Democrats.

Republican­s have typically found it hard, if not impossible, to cobble together enough House votes from their own party to increase the debt limit. That gives Democrats further leverage to bargain for spending concession­s.

Hard-liners have floated a number of proposals meant to rein in federal spending, though none has ever gotten broader buy-in from lawmakers.

Meadows said he has spoken to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “on how we can effectivel­y make some real reforms in that area, and based on those initial conversati­ons, a number of Freedom Caucus members could potentiall­y support those efforts.”

Thune said all the pending issues, from spending to immigratio­n to the debt ceiling, could end up getting dealt with together.

“There’s sort of a pileup of things happening, all of which I think at some point could end up being merged together,” he said.

“I don’t see the probabilit­y of the Freedom Caucus supporting a fifth CR without substantia­l changes.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)

 ?? ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES ?? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) arrive for a news briefing during a Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort. “I don’t think we’ll see a threatened government shutdown again over this...
ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) arrive for a news briefing during a Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort. “I don’t think we’ll see a threatened government shutdown again over this...

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