Big week ahead for Hill talks on spending deal to avoid shutdown

Democrats threaten NSC official with contempt
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Bipartisan congressional spending negotiators have reached a critical stage in the closed-door talks to take a potential government shutdown later this month off the table.

Proposals have been traded to unlock the appropriations process for several weeks, and there is a sense, (hopeful) aides say, that reaching an agreement on the topline numbers may clear the path toward completing most, if not all, of the spending bill process by the end of the year.

That topline agreement, however, has been out of reach for months — and both the broader success of the talks, and a clear path to avoid a shutdown, at this point appear contingent on that deal.

Bottom line

The topline numbers come first. Then an agreement to put aside fights over wall money and transfer authority. Then an agreement on a short-term stopgap funding bill to the end of the year. Then an agreement to conference and move the 12 appropriations bills expeditiously.

That’s a lot. But it’s possible. Negotiators need to lock in the topline numbers first.

What to watch

The House is out on recess, but negotiators are still talking. All eyes will be on Senate leaders and the top members of the appropriations panel, who are still all in town this week, to see if any progress is made.

Will there be a government shutdown?

The current stopgap spending bill runs out on November 21. There is a 0% chance the government is fully funded by that point. There will need to be another continuing resolution. The question is its length.

Right now, discussions are focused on a short-term measure until roughly mid-December, aides say. But that would be contingent on an agreement that kicks the process into gear. If that doesn’t happen, then lawmakers will actively look to punt things beyond a potential Senate impeachment trial. So the short answer is people working on this don’t believe there’s near-term risk for a shutdown. But, of course, nobody knows if President Donald Trump will eventually change that calculation with a single tweet.

Once more for the people in the back

A government shutdown wouldn’t stop the impeachment process. Congress remains in session, continues to vote and could still move through impeachment.

A government shutdown wouldn’t stop the impeachment process. Congress remains in session, continues to vote and could still move through impeachment.

A government shutdown wouldn’t stop the impeachment process. Congress remains in session, continues to vote and could still move through impeachment.

The problem with the longer CR

History makes clear: if the government isn’t fully funded heading into an election year, it ain’t gonna be fully funded ’til after the election. Given the blood, sweat and tears (OK, maybe just sweat and tears) that went into locking in the two-year budget agreement last year, leaving billions of dollars on the table via more than a year of continuing resolutions is nobody on Capitol Hill’s idea of a smart play.

That doesn’t mean they won’t end up there.

The key

Make no mistake, it’s the appropriators that, when left to their own devices, hammer out the deals (Sens. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, on the Senate side, Reps. Nita Lowey and Kay Granger on the House side have proven this.) But it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who committed to one another in a call last week, sources say, to try and finish all spending bills by the end of the year, who are the key.

The President’s thinking

Don’t know it. Would never claim to.

The risk

It’s the same as it has been for three years — the President decides to draw the red line on wall funding and threatens to veto anything that doesn’t hit the requested number. Even if that does happen, it’s highly unlikely it would derail the short-term stopgap measure to extend funding beyond November 21.


The reason the idea of a shutdown has been more of a media story than an actual serious concern from those in the room is that discussions between the Hill and the White House have been described to me as productive, and without any major fireworks. That includes a meeting last week, where options included putting the wall funding issue aside as the topline numbers were hammered out, which could clear the way for significant progress, sources said. It’s not a done deal, and it’s unclear whether topline numbers can actually be hammered out without incorporating the cost of any wall money, but it signaled a willingness to deal.

What, exactly, are “topline numbers”?

That’s my shorthand for the 302(b) allocations, which set the cap for each of the 12 spending measures. To lock in a bipartisan, bicameral process that allows for lawmakers to speed through 12 bills in two months, there needs to be bipartisan, bicameral agreement on those numbers. Negotiators have been seeking that agreement for months, and haven’t locked it in yet. That has to change, and quickly.

(Of note, the allocations often differ in each chamber, and can be resolved in conference. In fact, House Democrats have already passed 10 of their spending bills without an agreement on those numbers. But it smooths the process a tremendous amount if they are locked in.)

The major outstanding issues

To some degree these are all intertwined, but wall funding, as always, is a major point of contention. The administration is seeking roughly $8.5 billion for border wall funding, $5 billion of which would come through the Homeland Security funding measure.

There’s also transfer authority, or freedom for the administration to transfer more defense money to finance more wall. That has been something Democrats have opposed — and been furious about — for months.