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Senate votes to keep government open amid wide gulf on spending

Senate votes to keep government open amid wide gulf on spending

By Aidan Quigley and David Lerman

 A stopgap spending measure that will keep the government operating into early 2024 is on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk, as lawmakers prepare for the serious negotiations between the two chambers on full-year appropriations that will soon kick off.

The Senate cleared the continuing resolution with broad bipartisan support on an 87-11 vote late Wednesday after resolving some 11th-hour skirmishes.

Senate Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., won a commitment to vote on sending the annual defense policy bill to a formal conference with the House. The issue for hours had slowed down a time agreement for votes on the CR. 

Earlier, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed to allow a vote on a Rand Paul, R-Ky., amendment to impose 15% across-the-board discretionary spending cuts outside of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs while clawing back $30 billion in unspent IRS funds. The Senate rejected Paul’s amendment, 32-65.

Schumer also agreed to a 60-vote threshold for passage of the CR in exchange for expediting the process. But that higher bar posed no threat to the stopgap funding measure.

On Tuesday, the House passed Speaker Mike Johnson’s bill on a 336-95 vote, with all but two defections being members of the Louisiana Republican’s own party. Biden is expected to sign the legislation ahead of Friday night’s deadline when the first stopgap funding law expires.

“I have good news for the American people,” Schumer said late Wednesday before the final Senate vote. “This Friday night there will be no government shutdown.”

Now, attention will turn to the next deadline: Jan. 19, when funding for agencies covered by the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD bills will run out. Funding for agencies covered by the other eight bills expires Feb. 2.

Johnson has vowed to not do any more short-term stopgap funding measures, which means appropriators in both chambers will have to hammer out final fiscal 2024 appropriations ahead of those deadlines.

But with House Republicans thus far tossing aside the spring debt limit suspension law, which set higher spending limits than many on their side support, the two chambers do not yet have a topline budget target they have agreed to work with.

The Senate’s bipartisan bills meet the debt limit law’s spending limits and then some, adding nearly $14 billion above what Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agreed to.

But the House’s partisan, GOP-drafted bills come in well below that agreement’s spending ceiling for nondefense programs, while adhering to the law’s proposed 3 percent boost for the Pentagon and security-related accounts. After amendments to several of the House’s bills, the two chambers are roughly $75 billion apart, mostly on the nondefense side.

While Senate and House subcommittees are having informal discussions, they need a unified topline target with joint subcommittee allocations in order to make progress towards a bicameral deal, Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jerry Moran said.

“The Senate operated under the assumption that what was agreed to by the former speaker and the president is what we were to mark to,” Moran, R-Kan., said. “We need to find out what the House’s position is now, and then try to resolve whatever differences there are.”

House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart said Johnson will need to negotiate a “clarification” of the topline before appropriators can dig in.

“The differences are rather substantial between the number that we’re at and the number that the Senate’s at,” Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said.

Negotiations with the Senate will start as soon as lawmakers return after their Thanksgiving recess if possible, Labor-HHS-Education Chairman Robert B. Aderholt said. The Alabama Republican said he and fellow GOP appropriators delivered the message to Johnson that they need a topline deal to get started.

Given the holiday recess schedules this month and next, veterans of the appropriations process say realistically they have about three weeks in late November and early December to reach a bicameral framework deal on spending levels and associated subcommittee allocations.

Appropriators would need about a month of lead time to write compromise bills that can pass in both chambers and beat the first deadline on Jan. 19, sources said.

But Johnson is facing increasing pressure from his right flank after relying on Democrats to avoid a government shutdown.

On Wednesday, 19 Republicans voted against a rule that would have provided for consideration of the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, as well legislation relating to frozen Iranian assets. Most of those members, though not all, want cuts far deeper than what the debt limit deal calls for.

“We need to be meaningfully reducing spending when we come back and working on the policy in the bills,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a leader of the Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday. “And we need to be serious about forcing the Senate to the table on appropriations bills.”

Roy says the issue is not just the debt limit deal’s statutory caps, but the reported “side agreement” allowing for use of large rescissions of unobligated funds, emergency spending designations and more to add money above the caps.

One of those so-called adjustments in the debt limit law was parking $22 billion in what’s known as the Commerce Department’s nonrecurring expenses fund — which has never really been funded before. The side agreement allowed appropriators to pull out $11 billion each in this fiscal year and next to offset spending on other programs.

The side deals allowed lawmakers to “plus-up all the spending using the kinds of slush funds sitting in the Commerce Department right now that they’ve set up because the appropriators want to keep spending money to increase programs,” Roy said. “They want to tell the American people one thing and then do something different. That’s got to change.”

But the Freedom Caucus’ views on spending, as well as conservative priorities like anti-abortion riders, aren’t shared by all in the GOP conference. Although the chamber has been able to pass seven partisan spending bills, five have stalled largely because the GOP conference is divided on the scope of cuts and policy riders they’re willing to swallow.

Meanwhile, Democrats in both chambers are unified that spending should be at the levels laid out in the debt limit law and associated side agreement.

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Tuesday in a statement that House Republicans must “recognize reality” and agree to abide by the deal.

“We already have our topline,” added Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee’s chair. “Should we open up the old deal? No.”

Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, also said Wednesday that negotiations should be guided by the caps in the debt limit deal “and the side agreement that was worked out between Speaker McCarthy and President Biden.”

Another ‘minibus’?

Meanwhile, there’s still discussion of bringing to the floor more of the regular spending bills, even though often at this point in the budget cycle, the two chambers tend to begin informal conference talks rather than go through the motions on the floor.

The Senate has passed three of its bills as one package, and Collins said she wants the next package to consist of the Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Energy-Water and Labor-HHS-Education bills.

However, no final decisions have been made on if and when the Senate would move another appropriations “minibus,” or what it would consist of, sources familiar with the talks say.

The other lingering question is whether the supplemental funding that Biden has requested for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, the U.S. border and more will move independently, or end up tied to a final appropriations agreement. Biden is also seeking funding for domestic priorities, including child care and disaster relief.

While lawmakers plan to move the supplemental funding outside of the annual appropriations process, a tight schedule and stalled talks on border funding pose issues for the potential package.

Senate Republicans have said they will need border enforcement policy changes in exchange for funding Ukraine, which has led to negotiations with Senate Democrats. However, there has been no sign of a breakthrough in those talks.

Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Coons said he is pushing to move the supplemental as soon as possible after lawmakers return from Thanksgiving.

“I hope that first week of December, we’ll have a resolution of some of the differences between the parties here in the Senate about the supplemental and we’ll put that on the floor and then be able to turn to the appropriations bills,” Coons, D-Del., said. “But in the absence of clearing the supplemental, the whole appropriations process just gets harder.”

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