The House passed a stopgap bill Tuesday to prevent another government shutdown, as a broader budget deal appeared increasingly within reach on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met privately on Tuesday to discuss lifting stiff spending caps as part of the short-term funding package, according to sources in both parties briefed on the talks. The top four congressional leaders believe they are close to clinching a budget deal to significantly boost defense and domestic spending and end the cycle of temporary funding measures.
The bill passed by the House, 245-182, would boost Pentagon spending over the next eight months while funding non-defense programs at current levels — and then only until March 23.
The “defense-only” approach was an easy win in the House, where droves of GOP conservatives and defense hawks have been begging Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership team for months to vote on just such a plan.
But many of those same House Republicans admitted the bill was doomed in the Senate, since Democrats want any increase in defense and non-defense spending levels to be equal.
“From the very beginning of the budget debate, Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “We support an increase in funding for our military and our middle class. The two are not mutually exclusive. We don’t want to do just one and leave the other behind.”
The Senate is likely to rewrite the House bill to eliminate the extra defense funding, but a repeat of last month’s federal government shutdown is not expected.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, told reporters on Tuesday he didn’t think there would be another government shutdown.
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s going to happen, no. Yeah, I guess I’m optimistic,” Kelly said.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, called for a government shutdown Tuesday if Congress is unable to pass what he considers adequate border-security measures.
“If we don’t get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill … if we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” Trump said at a White House roundtable focused on the gang MS-13. “We’ll do a shutdown, and it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”
Immigration, however, is not a major issue in the current spending debate on Capitol Hill.
And a budget caps deal could ease all the drama surrounding the Senate vote, as all four congressional leaders and the White House would have to be in agreement for such a spending deal to occur. It would outline budget levels for the next two years, although there will still be fights over specific policy concerns within the annual appropriations bills.
The deal is expected to bust budget caps by $300 billion for both domestic and defense programs over the next two years. It would also achieve near parity between defense and domestic funding increases — a key priority of Democrats — and approach $150 billion in new defense spending to satisfy hawks, according to a person briefed on the talks.
Leaving a House GOP strategy meeting Tuesday morning, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said lawmakers are prepared for the bill to “ping-pong” back to the House with changes from the Senate. And if the Senate strips out the extra defense money, House Republicans will be forced to embrace that rewrite or risk another shutdown come midnight Thursday.
“The history’s pretty clear. If they need to send something back, we usually hug it pretty quick,” said Amodei, a member of the House’s spending panel. “Let’s not bulls— each other. The Republicans in the House may be in the majority, but it’s like — when we talk about what the heck hits the president’s desk — it doesn’t feel like we’re in control.”
The House Freedom Caucus voted Monday night to band together in support of House GOP leadership’s spending plan. But the conservative group’s chief, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), said “the majority” of his caucus plans to oppose the measure if it returns without defense funding at a level of $659.2 billion.
Meadows said the group doesn’t plan to take an official position against a stripped-down version, though, potentially enabling House leaders to pick off a few of those conservative lawmakers as “yea” votes if the measure does indeed return with changes from the Senate.
“I think there’s a fair amount of skepticism in terms of: Ultimately, will this produce a different result?” Meadows said. “But it’s the best play call we have today.”
The Senate likely won’t hold its passage vote until Wednesday or Thursday; another House vote would come shortly after.
House Democrats plan to head to their annual strategy retreat Wednesday and will likely be called back to Washington for a final vote to prevent a shutdown.
Making the plan harder for Democrats to oppose the stopgap, the GOP bill includes two years of funding for the Community Health Centers program, a permanent repeal of the Medicare cap on therapy services, and other provisions that generally have bipartisan support.
Yet Senate Democrats continue to make clear they have no interest in the House GOP plan.
“We’ve made very clear that to get past sequester, you’ve got to raise the caps on both,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We’re for an increase in defense. But we’re not going to ignore everything from opioids to veterans hospitals to education to cancer research and all those things.”
Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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