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State of play: The year-end spending package and a looming government shutdown

Lawmakers have returned to Washington and are working against the clock to fund several government agencies,...

Posted: Nov 27, 2018 1:15 PM
Updated: Nov 27, 2018 1:15 PM

Lawmakers have returned to Washington and are working against the clock to fund several government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, before their funding expires on December 7.

Negotiators are in the midst of intense negotiations over the end of the year spending package. At this point, it's largely a negotiation between appropriators and staff -- as in, the rank-and-file members of the House and Senate are not involved and the leaders in both chambers are, at this point at least, only involved on the periphery.

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That, of course, has to change in the next few days. Leadership sign-off is required for any deal, and, perhaps more importantly, so is the sign off of the White House. At this point, the talks aren't yet to that stage. But they will be and, given that the funding deadline is 10 days away, have to be -- soon.

Sources in both parties involved in the talks to this point believe there is a way to thread the needle to avoid a government shutdown. Left to their own devices, appropriators can find the path forward, aides say. But they won't be left to their own devices. There are a series of wild cards at the leadership and White House level that can create significant hurdles in the days ahead. How real -- and detrimental -- are those wild cards? To be determined, sources in both parties say.

What is the issue?

It's not new. It's the wall.

In the Senate, where Republicans need at least nine Democrats to pass anything on the floor, bipartisan negotiators agreed in their Department of Homeland Security funding bill to maintain the $1.6 billion for border wall funding set out in the March omnibus spending bill. House Republicans passed a bill with $5 billion for the wall. Trump wants $5 billion and has threatened, repeatedly, in every venue and medium he can find, to veto any year-end spending package without it.

It's worth noting that there are other issues outstanding right now in the seven appropriations bills that would make up a year-end spending package, but negotiators are confident they can close those out in the days ahead.

What's not an issue?

Despite what some top Democrats have said in recent days, sources directly involved in the negotiations say there has been zero discussion about including the legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election in the year-end spending package. Could it change? Possibly. But keep that in mind when people say otherwise at this point.

What may be an issue?

One of the bills that would be included in the final spending package -- the Commerce, Justice & Science measure -- does include some funding for Mueller's office. If there's a shutdown, there's a possibility that funding would be cut off for a period of time. Not a huge issue at the moment, but something that has started entering discussions among some staff and a lawmakers.

Keep in mind

Lawmakers, almost across the board, don't want a government shutdown. It's the end of the year. There's a boatload of must-pass items on the agenda in the weeks ahead. They just finished a brutal midterm election cycle. Many no longer have seats. Those that do want a fresh start come January in the new Congress.

As one Republican official, a veteran of years of spending battles put it: "I haven't picked up much will from anyone, from either party, on the Hill to have a bare knuckle spending brawl at this point. Mostly people just want to call it a year and go home."

The path forward

Negotiators are working through several different pathways to try and address what the President wants and still maintain Democratic support. To put it mildly, a blank $5 billion check for the border wall isn't going to get the job done, per sources on both sides involved in the talks. But there's a way to thread the needle, that could include options like spreading the allotted money for the wall over a two-year period or incorporating several border security measures deemed amenable by the White House -- things like funding for technology, personnel and manpower, or additional infrastructure beyond a physical wall.

Remember, the omnibus spending package did include $1.6 billion for physical barriers, and Democrats signed on. Republicans involved in the talks think there will be similar willingness to sign-off on something now to avoid an unnecessary shutdown. But negotiations are still very much in flux and at a staff level stage.

The wild cards

The President

The President can veto anything he wants. If he's not happy with the deal that's cut, even if his staff signs off on it, as it did with the $1.3 trillion omnibus in March, nothing else will matter. A shutdown will happen. Remember, the President has been itching to use the veto pen to force a shutdown for months, against the advice of Republican leaders and officials everywhere. Will this be the moment he pulls the trigger?

Democratic leadership race

As is always the case, the expectation is House Democrats will be needed to get the spending package over the finish line in their chamber, even though they remain in the minority until January. With Rep. Nancy Pelosi's speakership push in full swing, can she endorse -- and then work to get the caucus behind -- any package that includes funds for a border wall?

New House Republican leadership

Rep. Paul Ryan may still be the speaker for now, but Rep. Kevin McCarthy is now the de facto GOP leader (and will be the minority leader next Congress). This is the same McCarthy who introduced legislation to fully fund the President's $25 billion border wall request weeks before the midterm election and who is keenly aware that his conference is now made up, in large part, by sharply conservative, Trump-supporting members who want to fight for Trump's priorities in any way they can. Does that new dynamic come to fore in the coming days to complicate things?

Departing members

There are a lot of them, especially in the House Republican ranks. How many of them just want to go home -- and are willing to vote for anything to allow that to occur? And how many view the final spending vote as part of their legacy? It's likely to end up as a wash, but if things get tight, these are the kinds of members that could help get something across the finish line.

Some perspective

As things appear to be careening toward a potential shutdown, keep in mind not all shut downs are the same. Trump has already signed into law five spending bills -- including the largest and most politically important bills like Pentagon funding and the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending measures. That's not to say the remaining measures -- Interior and Environment, Financial Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Science, State and Foreign Ops and, of course, Homeland Security -- aren't important or integral to the function of the US government.

But managing a shutdown would be easier and less disruptive, if no less of a self-inflicted political wound.

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