Government shutdown over spending bills unlikely
Facing an end-of-month funding deadline, lawmakers negotiating the federal government’s 2019 spending bills say they are confident they will be able to head off a third shutdown this year.
But three weeks out, even bullish appropriators say any number of obstacles can trip them up, and lawmakers are facing intermittent threats from President Trump that he could veto their spending bills if they don’t provide enough money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has flatly declared there is “zero” chance of a government shutdown at the close of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 a sentiment his lieutenants say they would at least like to share.
“I’m glad to hear the majority leader say that because I’m very much in that camp that we certainly don’t need a shutdown,” said Sen. John Boozman, Arkansas Republican. “I don’t know that you can say zero, but I think the good news is that everybody’s working very, very hard to avoid that.”
Mr. Boozman helped negotiate a spending package covering energy, veterans affairs and legislative branch programs that House leaders hope to vote on this week.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said he hopes Congress will pass nine of its 12 annual funding bills by the end of the month. House and Senate leaders named negotiators last week to finalize them.
“These nine bills make up 87 percent of the discretionary budget and represent the most appropriation bills in conference at any point in the last 20 years,” Mr. McCarthy said.
If lawmakers approve the spending bills and Mr. Trump signs them, then the risk of a shutdown would be defused because most of the government would be funded through September 2019. Leaders are planning to pass stopgap funding for the rest of the government and work out those issues later.
But lawmakers in both chambers say they are still digging in for a fight in the coming weeks.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said House negotiators will have to accept the “reality” that “poison pill” policy riders in their bills that zero out funding for abortion providers and gun control won’t survive the final packages.
“No one should mistake Democratic cooperation in the Senate for a sign that we will support a conference report that contains poison pills. We will not,” Mr. Leahy said.
Mr. Leahy and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, have tried to keep controversial riders out of their bills because spending legislation needs at least some Democratic support to thwart a potential filibuster in the Senate.
But House Republicans have said they need to notch at least some policy wins if they vote for more spending on domestic programs, as laid out in a two-year budget deal this year that also included a boost in funding for the Pentagon.
Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican, said it’s good news that the Senate is moving faster on spending bills this year but that “the bad news is they don’t include any of the really important riders that we’ve worked really hard on.”
Mr. Stewart said he doesn’t expect a government shutdown but doesn’t feel 100 percent confident because of underlying uncertainty in the process.
“I really don’t know, and if anyone tells you they think they know, I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it,” he said.
To expedite the process, Senate leaders have packaged the two biggest individual bills, which cover the Pentagon, along with the labor, heath and education departments, into a massive $857 billion package.
That move theoretically makes it easier for Republican defense hawks and Democrats who want to spend more on social programs to find at least something they like in the package.
The House passed a standalone $675 billion defense bill in June, and senators added the other funding in a package they passed last month.
Mr. Leahy said the bills have to stay as a package, but House conservatives say sticking them together costs them negotiating leverage and that bigger bills simply offer more opportunities for lawmakers to sneak in their pet priorities.
“I don’t find it acceptable, and I quite honestly don’t think my constituents find it acceptable,” said Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican.
The third “minibus” spending package leaders hope to pass this month covers funding for agricultural, environmental, financial services and transportation programs.
Even there, the full House hasn’t passed its agriculture and transportation spending bills. The Senate added those to a House-passed bill to piece together the larger $154.2 billion package.
Lawmakers have signaled that they won’t have enough time to pass the final three bills, which cover spending for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Commerce and State, likely pushing those debates beyond the November elections.
Mr. Trump said he would be willing to force a shutdown over wall funding in the homeland security bill but that congressional leaders convinced him a shutdown would hurt Republican prospects in the midterm elections.
The House included $5 billion for the wall and border security in its homeland security bill, and the Senate included $1.6 billion in line with current-year funding.
The House funding bill for the Homeland Security Department also included language that seeks to roll back the Trump administration’s tough new asylum policy for immigrants that could exclude certain victims of gang or domestic violence.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security spending subcommittee who spoke in favor of the language in July, now says the administration has raised concerns and he is not sure whether it will end up in any final package.
Mr. Yoder, who faced significant criticism from conservatives for allowing the amendment to be included in his bill, said people have the right to bring domestic violence asylum claims and that domestic violence is a “very serious issue.”
“At the same time, what we can’t do is create systems that would allow false claims and catch-and-release to proliferate,” he said. “So I’m just trying to get that policy right.”