Lawmakers say spending deal up to leaders

Lawmakers in both parties say it’s time for Congress’s top four leaders to meet face to face to negotiate a yearlong spending deal as talks among the senior members of the Senate and House Appropriations committees have dragged on and government funding will soon lapse.

But that may be easier said than done given the lingering resentments among the big four.

The four players had central roles in negotiating the last two major budget deals in 2018 and 2019.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) rarely meet in person, and their relationship took another beating last month when Schumer made an all-out push to change the Senate’s filibuster rule.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D) relationship with fellow Californian and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) is even worse.

And even McConnell’s relationship with McCarthy is not what colleagues would call chummy.

The last time McConnell and Schumer sat down together to negotiate was in November, when they met to hash out an agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. They finalized their deal just off the Senate floor on Dec. 1 to allow Democrats to increase the nation’s borrowing authority without any Republican votes.

Yet the chairmen and ranking members of the Appropriations committees have been unable to reach a spending deal in large part because they’ve had to shuttle between the negotiating room and their party leaders to get signoff on major concessions, say senators familiar with the talks.

That’s led to more and more calls for the leaders to step in.

“If that’s what needs to be done to get it done, that’s what they need to do. This is not acceptable what’s happening right now,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Lawmakers in the House on Monday introduced a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through March 11, a nod to the fact that lawmakers seem unlikely to reach a deal by their Feb. 18 deadline.

Republicans and Democrats have different stories over who is to blame for the standoff.

Democrats say McConnell has reached into the negotiations to derail what they thought would be a relatively easy-to-reach deal with Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Some Appropriations Committee Democrats felt confident they’d reach a deal after the two sides agreed last year to increase defense spending by 5 percent, significantly more than the 1.7-percent increase that President Biden proposed.

“Mitch told them not to proceed. They had a tentative deal, but Mitch tore it down,” said a Democratic senator who was briefed on the negotiations on setting top-line spending numbers for defense and nondefense discretionary programs.

But Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Schumer and Pelosi don’t seem at all interested in meeting with McConnell and McCarthy.

“I think everybody has to be sufficiently motivated for that to happen and my impression is the Democrats are not particularly motivated on this,” he said, predicting that negotiators would not reach a deal in time to meet the Feb. 18 deadline.

So far this year, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Shelby, the chairman and ranking member of Senate Appropriations Committee, and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas), their counterparts on the House Appropriations panel, have done most of the face-to-face talking.

Those talks appeared to stall out last week, and on Monday the House unveiled a short-term funding resolution.

McConnell told colleagues last year that defense and nondefense programs must see equal percentage funding increases, pushing back against Biden’s proposal to boost nondefense programs by 16 percent and defense programs by only 1.7 percent.

“Democrats will need to honor the long-standing bipartisan truce that provides parity for defense and nondefense spending growth,” he declared on the Senate floor in August.

Shelby has said repeatedly that he never agreed with Democratic appropriators or signaled he would support a larger spending increase for nondefense programs than for defense programs, even after Democrats agreed to boost the Defense Department’s budget above what Biden called for.

“I never agreed to anything like that,” he said, adding that he only thought the 5 percent defense spending increase in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last year was “a good start.”

A spokeswoman for Shelby said that her boss never gave Democrats any reason to think he would settle for a 5 percent defense increase, let alone agree in return to an even bigger percentage increase for nondefense programs.

Democrats had thought Shelby would be able to work out a deal with Leahy if the two were left alone,  but both senior appropriators have had to check back with their leaders on key issues in the negotiation.

Shelby said leaders on “both sides” are weighing in on the discussions over the top-line defense and nondefense spending numbers.

“If we had the mandate from our caucus to go work this out, could we work it out? We’ve been there a lot of times … and we do work things out,” he said. “But Leahy is an extension of the caucus headed by Schumer. I’m part of the caucus.

“We’re not totally free agents. Would we like to be?” Shelby said, leaving hanging the answer to the question of whether he and Leahy would like to have more freedom to negotiate more freely.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, said it’s better if spending talks are left to the appropriators.

“There’s always the possibility that the leaders fall into the old trap of the four of them negotiating the appropriations bill — the two House leaders and the two Senate leaders — and that’s always a bad idea,” he said.

Congressional leaders last agreed to a deal on the discretionary spending top lines in the summer of 2019, right before that year’s August recess.

The negotiations were led that year at the highest level by Pelosi and then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The deal, which passed the Senate 67-28 and the House 284-149, set the top-line spending numbers for 2020 and 2021.

Schumer and McConnell took a more hands-on role negotiating the top-line spending numbers for fiscal 2018 and 2019. They did so in large part because the Senate was the bottleneck for then-President Trump’s agenda.

Republicans controlled the White House and the House, but Democrats could hold up spending bills in the Senate because of the greater power accorded to the minority party under the chamber’s rules.

Schumer was able to wrangle a deal with McConnell that increased discretionary spending for defense and nondefense programs by a whopping $300 billion over two years.

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