Congress

Appropriators seek to wrap up talks this weekend

But panel members acknowledge ‘hurdles’ as Dec. 20 deadline for bill passage looms

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, on Thursday said he was “more enthusiastic than I was a couple of days ago” that final negotiations on spending bills could be done this weekend. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Spending bill negotiators set their sights on wrapping up a year-end deal by this weekend, but they differed on how realistic that deadline might be.

With only two weeks left before current funding runs dry, appropriators are hoping to finalize work on all 12 spending bills and pass them by Dec. 20 to avoid another stopgap measure or possible government shutdown. But unless a deal comes together in the next several days, lawmakers have warned, there likely won’t be enough time to write the bills and move them through both chambers before the holiday recess.

“I'm more enthusiastic than I was a couple of days ago,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “We want final negotiations to be done this weekend.”

Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama confirmed the weekend goal but appeared less confident that it could be met. “I'm more guarded because we still have the big hurdles and we haven’t concluded those,” he said. “And they will be the hardest.”

Those hurdles include President Donald Trump’s $8.6 billion request for construction of a border wall, most of which would come from the Homeland Security bill. Homeland Security Appropriations Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito on Thursday said there was no sign of any imminent compromise on her bill.

[House pushes ‘dozen bills or none’ approach to spending talks]

“We’re still pretty far behind,” the West Virginia Republican said. “I'm always optimistic. Things can fall quickly ... but we have hurdles.”

The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, echoed that assessment. “Everything that’s controversial is on the table,” he said, citing wall funding, detention bed capacity, and the president’s authority to transfer money from other programs to a border wall. “We haven’t come to a conclusion yet,” he said.

Talks appeared nearly as difficult for negotiators of the Labor-HHS-Education bill, where partisan disputes over gun violence research funding and Title X family planning grants have stymied progress. 

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, called his House counterpart, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, “a tough negotiator.” When asked if he could meet a Friday deadline for subcommittees to finish their work, Blunt said, “I hope we can do that, but it takes four people to agree,” referring to the top four appropriators on the House and Senate subcommittees.

House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole said later on Thursday that he feels “very, very upbeat” about getting their bill done.

“I think we’ll be able to resolve most of the issues in the bill between the four of us at the subcommittee level. I don't think very much will go up to the front office for the House and Senate,” Cole said. The Oklahoma Republican added that the National Institutes of Health is in line to receive a “very substantial increase” in funding in the final package.

Negotiators on the Defense bill, meanwhile, planned to meet Thursday afternoon. “We think we’re close,” said Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “I hope we can get our job done.”

And even smaller bills face some obstacles. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said his bill will likely need attention from top committee leadership to resolve a partisan dispute over funding aimed at helping states improve their security at the ballot box. Democrats are pushing for extra funding, while Republicans have said states have yet to spend some grant money that was already appropriated.

Finding money for election security was made harder, Kennedy said, because the compromise spending allocation for his bill is about $125 million less than what the Senate had originally provided. But he said most of the bill is ready to go, adding, “We’ve cleared away a lot of the brush.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York suggested a deal was still possible in the next several days. “I’m always cautiously optimistic that we’ll complete our work in the time designated,” she said.  

Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.

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