Hill negotiators hope to avoid government shutdown

Posted at 9:20 PM, Apr 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-04 21:20:50-04

WASHINGTON — Congress faces a deadline at the end of April to pass a spending bill to fund federal agencies or face a possible government shutdown.

Bipartisan leaders on the spending panels in the House and Senate are making progress on a deal that would wrap several individual spending measures into one “omnibus” spending bill they hope to approve before the deadline. But time is short and both sides warn that any move to add significant money to build President Donald Trump’s promised border wall could blow up that effort.

“I personally wouldn’t gamble a trillion-dollar bill over $3 billion bucks,” Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, a key negotiator told reporters Tuesday, warning it wouldn’t be worth shutting down the government over the $3-billion Trump wants for a wall on the southwest border between the United States and Mexico.

Cole said Congress could deal with that controversial funding request in the future.

Multiple members of both parties tell CNN they want to avoid a bill that simply extends current funding levels for government agencies across the board — a measure called a “continuing resolution” — because a “CR” doesn’t update funding policies and priorities the way new appropriations bills do.

“I sense from (Senate Minority Leader Chuck) Schumer and others, there is a genuine desire not to do a continuing resolution. And that would be good for everybody,” Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the number two leader, said Tuesday, suggesting that the final details will have to be brokered by the top Senate Democrat and the White House.

“But ultimately there are two people who have to do that negotiating. It’s going to have to be Sen. Schumer, because he’s going to have to provide some votes. And it’s going to have to be the President or his designee,” he added.

Schumer’s deputy, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, told reporters the ball is in the GOP’s court.

“The Republicans are in charge of the strategy on this,” Durbin said. “We’re just waiting and watching.”

Top GOP leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismiss the chances that they will fall short and fail to get a deal that could trigger something like the 2013 government shutdown that occurred when the GOP insisted that the must-pass funding bill strip money for Obamacare.

But Democrats are eager to point out that the GOP has needed their help to pass annual spending bills for the last several years — a factor that gives them party leverage in these talks.

“If the government shuts down, it will be all on them, period,” the number two House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

He said flatly, about the Trump administration’s request that Congress approve money in the package to begin constructing the barrier along the border, “we’re not for the wall. We think the wall is a very bad idea.”

In previous debates on funding bills, Republicans pushed to defund Planned Parenthood, causing Democrats to balk. But Ryan has signaled the GOP plans to shift that issue to the health care reform package that Republicans are still negotiating meaning it shouldn’t be a sticking point now.

Republicans also have vowed to increase defense spending and cut back on spending for domestic programs — a big problem for Democrats. But negotiators are still working out how non-defense spending levels will be impacted, as Democrats argue that environmental, educational and other programs shouldn’t be short changed.

One thing most members agree on is that nothing will be decided before the deadline.

Both chambers are scheduled to head home for a two-week recess starting this weekend, which means that they will have roughly four days in Washington when they return to get a bill through the House and Senate and signed by the President.

“When we have a calendar deadline, April 28, you should not expect the Congress that I’ve been part of since I came here six years ago to want to get it done, say on the 14th or the 21st, it will be the 28th,” Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack, a member of the Appropriations Committee, told reporters. “I mean that’s how this business runs up here. I don’t agree with it. I think we should have had this thing put to bed months ago.”

Already there are discussions about passing a short-term bill to give negotiators a few days, or a week to finalize a broader deal.

“I’ve heard that song before,” McCain warned reporters on Tuesday, insisting again that Congress needed to finish its work by the April 28 deadline. “I bought that bridge before.”

Cole didn’t hide his frustration that Congress has spent too much time tackling other thorny issues and hasn’t dealt with it’s basic responsibility.

“We got caught up in chasing the great white whale of health care and tax reform and that’s great, but how about just making the government work first and then go and looking for Moby Dick?” the Oklahoma Republican said Tuesday. “It’s strange to me.”