Congress

McConnell waiting on House and White House deal on spending caps

Without an agreement on limits, Senate appropriators don’t know how much they have to spend, majority leader says

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is waiting for a final agreement on spending limits, which hinders Senate action on spending bills. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hinted Thursday that the Senate won’t set its own discretionary spending level and proceed with appropriations markups until a universal caps agreement is reached between House Democrats and the Trump administration.

“I support getting some kind of deal that can tell us how much we can spend so we can go forward,” McConnell said. “The two key players in any caps deal are the speaker and the president. If they can agree on how much we can spend, then we are not spinning our wheels.”

[Familiar offsets could resurface in spending caps talks]

That announcement throws cold water on Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby’s hopes that his chamber could proceed under its own spending limits absent a formal caps agreement.

Earlier Thursday, the Alabama Republican said he’d prefer to move ahead with Senate-only caps after the July Fourth recess so his panel could start fiscal 2020 markups. Senate appropriators are well behind their House counterparts in the process.

“I talked to McConnell about it and we hadn’t reached a conclusion on it, but if there’s no agreement come the first week of July, I think, we’d have to seriously consider assuming some numbers and keep the process moving, hoping that there’s a breakthrough later. It’s happened before," Shelby said before McConnell spoke to reporters later Thursday.

Given the current Senate schedule, which has the chamber out most of August, Shelby suggested the Appropriations Committee would focus its time writing and marking up the larger spending bills, which would likely include the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education measures.

“We don’t know exactly what we would do, but we would try to move a couple of the biggest bills first. Maybe then some of the others,” Shelby said.

Senate appropriators have been waiting for a global spending caps agreement among the Capitol Hill leadership and White House to avert automatic cuts known as a sequester at the end of the year that would lop off $125 billion, or 10 percent, from fiscal 2019 levels.

McConnell indicated he plans to continue working toward a two-year spending caps deal that also includes an extension of the debt ceiling. He said he doesn’t support “deeming” an overall topline in the way that the House did for its spending bills.

“I don’t think that works for us,” he said. “I think the way forward in the absence of a caps deal, at least for Senate purposes, is more complicated. But we are going to continue to talk about this and hopefully get a resolution about how much we are going to spend this year, next year and the debt ceiling all together so that we don’t end up with these periodic, chaotic situations.”

McConnell said he is “disappointed” congressional leaders and the Trump administration haven’t reached an agreement, which could hit Pentagon accounts as hard as domestic programs. As a fallback, White House officials have pitched a full-year stopgap measure at fiscal 2019-enacted funding levels, but McConnell said that would also negatively impact military capabilities.

“That leaves you with accepting the results of last year’s election, which is we have divided government. And when the American people elect divided government they are saying ‘OK, you guys figure out how to work together even though we know you have lots of differences,’” McConnell said.

“So far that has not been successful,” he continued. “I’m disappointed we’ve not gotten there but I’ve not given up.”

House Democrats have decided not to wait and instead are operating under their own spending allocations, totaling $1.295 trillion in fiscal 2020, not counting extras like war-related funds and money for the 2020 census. They have marked up all 12 bills and have passed 10 on the floor, all but the Legislative Branch and Homeland Security measures.

The White House has threatened to veto all of the House bills passed so far, which they've done in two bundles as well as a standalone Financial Services bill. The Trump administration opposes the overall spending levels in the bills as well as numerous policy riders attached by House Democrats.

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