Update 495 — Countdown to Shutdown:
State of Budget Talks as the Clock Tocks
Developments this afternoon put the question to the President. With hundreds of thousands of new COVID cases a day, the nation has seen a sharp reversal in macroeconomic circumstances (see initial jobless claims). This doesn’t seem the time to shut down the government.
Congress is watching after racing to pass a stopgap funding bill and failing to come to an agreement on the full appropriations omnibus and COVID relief. After numerous objections threatened to cause another shutdown, the Senate passed the Continuing Resolution (CR) by voice vote earlier today. President Trump is expected to sign the bill shortly.
Good weekends, all…
Months into FY 2021, appropriations negotiations are still ongoing. Congress will now have an extra week to pass an appropriations omnibus — in combination with a stimulus package — before this second CR expires on the 18th and Congress breaks for the holiday recess.
Below, we analyze the appropriations negotiations and what Democrats should do over the coming months to force more relief and prepare for the FY 2022 negotiations.
The State of the CR
While the House easily passed the CR 343-67, several issues including negotiations over the fifth coronavirus relief package postponed the vote in the Senate. With funding set to expire on Friday, a government shutdown would have occurred had the Senate failed to pass a one-week extension of the CR.
Because the Senate chose to consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prior to the House-passed CR, the Senate couldn’t vote on the latter without resolving the former. But the NDAA presented its own problems. Sen. Rand Paul delayed its passage over provisions in the bill that would potentially weaken the President’s ability to withdraw troops stationed overseas but dropped his objections earlier today. The Senate passed the NDAA 84-13 this afternoon.
Other Senators tried using the CR to push for further COVID relief. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley attempted to add a second round of stimulus checks to the stopgap bill. The direct payments have attracted wide public and bipartisan support but were not included in the $908 billion bipartisan stimulus bill due to cost concerns. Now that both the NDAA and stimulus check disagreements have been set aside, Senate passage of the CR appears imminent.
The second CR, while barebones, extends the first CR’s important supplements to several important anti-poverty and health programs. The second CR includes bolstered funding for state health insurance programs, including community health centers.
Omnibus Negotiations Continue
In a speech on the House floor on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Hoyer was hopeful that the extra week would be enough time to complete the omnibus bill. But Hoyer called the week-long CR extension a “recognition of failure” that House and Senate leadership were unable to reach an agreement on a budget before the deadline.
House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby came to an agreement over topline funding numbers for each of the 12 appropriation bills before Thanksgiving. But subcommittee negotiators still need to work out the final details. Though Congressional leaders had expressed optimism regarding reaching a final agreement on an omnibus by the end of this week, several outstanding issues have delayed that process.
- COVID-19 Relief: With both sides seeking to leverage the appropriations process to get a better deal on a second round of COVID relief, leadership has created a tenuous situation where failing to pass a relief package may also cause a government shutdown. We covered these negotiations earlier this week.
- Border Wall Funding: Republicans are demanding $1.96 billion for Trump’s southern border wall, a hallmark of his presidency. But Democrats are refusing to fund Trump’s wall. House Democrats’ appropriations bills included language prohibiting the executive branch from diverting money appropriated for other purposes to get around the lack of border wall funding. In early 2019, Trump declared a national emergency to seize funds allocated for military construction projects towards the border wall, prompting congressional outrage and eventually a court ruling blocking the move.
- Veterans Affairs Private Sector Care: House Appropriations Committee Democrats and their Senate Republican counterparts want to exempt the $12.5 billion used to give veterans access to private health care from statutory spending limits. This change would allow legislators to increase funding for other non-defense discretionary programs by a commensurate amount. House Minority Leader McCarthy opposes these changes, however, and the Trump administration’s position remains murky.
- ICE Detention Center Funding: The White House is requesting additional funds to house undocumented immigrants detained by ICE. Yet the number of undocumented individuals who attempted to cross the border has decreased significantly over the past year. House Democrats are proposing to cut Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds by half, although details on funding levels are hazy.
With numerous fights brewing and limited time to resolve them, the prospect for imminent passage of the appropriations omnibus with a relief package attached remains remote. Congress and the White House will need to agree on several controversial issues. But even if Republicans give in to Democrats’ demands to eliminate border wall funding, Trump continues to be an obstacle. (The longest government shutdown in history was due to Trump’s insistence over border wall funding.)
The rush to pass a package before the CR runs out has increased pressure on Republicans and bolstered Democrats’ negotiating position to attach COVID relief to a must-pass bill. And with another full or partial CR, Democrats could force future negotiations over additional stimulus, perhaps including hazard pay and direct payments.
Biden’s Budgets, McConnell’s Price to Pay
Democrats are vocally preparing for another stimulus fight after Biden’s inauguration. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a fierce progressive, will serve as Chair of the House Appropriations Committee next congressional session after winning the leadership election last week. Rep. DeLauro has said her primary goals are and will be the 2021 appropriations bills, further COVID relief, and directing the FY 2022 budget towards building a more equitable nation. Majority Leader Hoyer has said that Democrats will finish drafting their FY 2022 bills by the end of June next year.
While Congress and the White House play out this year’s final drama, eyes are turning to 2021. As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office and progressives get ready to play a new role within a narrow Democratic House majority, the question of Senate control looms heavy. With slim majorities in both chambers, Democrats would be in full control of setting the next two years’ legislative agenda and the budget. But if Republicans retain the Senate and Mitch McConnell and his party continue a legacy of legislative obstruction begun with Obama, the most basic functions of government will still hang in the balance over these next few months.