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Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms

Senate government funding talks are off to a rough start with 10 working days to go until the shutdown deadline.

The impasse is throwing into question if senators will be able to get any of the fiscal 2020 bills through the chamber this month, a setback for Republicans who wanted to clear a major package before October.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he still wants to bring bills to the Senate floor for a vote but warned that lawmakers need to “negotiate the terrain.”

“We’ve been down that road before,” he said, asked how the funding talks get unstuck. “There’s got to be a resolution to it — it could be sooner. It could be later.”

The partisan breakdown has left lawmakers visibly flummoxed about how to resolve the impasse.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) described the negotiations as “pretty fragile.”

“If they break down we’re looking at potentially a long-term CR,” he said, referring to a continuing resolution.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, warned against getting “bogged down in too many foxholes” and disclosed that he’d turned to a higher power to help resolve the fight.

“I’m praying for Chairman Shelby and ranking member [Patrick] Leahy that the curtains will part here and we’ll figure a way to move forward,” said McConnell, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee.

But a quick resolution is nowhere in sight with senators at a stalemate over major provisions, including the top-line spending figures for each of the bills, known as 302(b)s.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the top-line figures, a mammoth fiscal 2020 defense bill and an energy and water funding bill on Thursday — marking the first bills cleared by the panel despite having less than two weeks until the end of the fiscal year.

But neither the 302(b)s nor the defense bill currently have the votes to pass the Senate, where they would need the support of at least seven Democrats if every Republican voted for them.

Democrats are taking issue with the top-line figures, which break down how much money each bill will get, because they believe Republicans are padding extra money toward the homeland security bill. And they balked at supporting the Pentagon spending bill after Republicans rejected an amendment that would have prevented Trump from shifting money in the bill toward the border wall without congressional sign off.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) — the Senate minority whip and top Democrat on the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee — warned that the spending bill for the Pentagon is stuck until they resolve the fight over top-line spending figures.

“It doesn’t go anywhere until we get an agreement on the 302(b) allocations. ... We need to have the roadmap to take us all the way home,” he said.

Republicans could bring them to the floor anyways just to have Democrats vote down the bills in what would amount to a messaging fight. Democrats previously blocked the defense spending bill in 2016 as part of an effort to force a budget deal; McConnell, who is currently up for reelection, used the votes to paint Democrats as undermining national security.

Spokesmen for McConnell didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether the GOP leader would bring up the defense bill. But they are expected to announce guidance for floor consideration of the spending bills this week, suggesting McConnell does still intend to bring some legislation to the floor.

Democrats are making it clear they won’t provide Republicans with the votes unless they sit down and renegotiate the spending legislation.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he thought Republicans “pulled the rug out from under us.”

“They've got to realize the mistake they made. They've made a tactical error, and it won't be the first time that a majority party has had to correct itself,” he said.

Asked if any spending bills could pass on the floor, he added, “Absolutely not.”

“You had every member of the Democratic caucus voting 'no'” in committee, he said. “I think we've got to renegotiate the allocations, and if we negotiate the allocations we can move forward.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) characterized efforts to fund the government as being at a “crossroads.”

“No one wants to resort to a continuing resolution or, God forbid, another Republican-, President Trump-inspired government shutdown. But it takes two to tango. My Republican colleagues must know that what happens in the next few days and weeks will determine whether we can proceed with a bipartisan appropriations process this fall or not,” he said from the Senate floor late last week.

The path forward doesn’t get easier for lawmakers.

With the full-year funding bills stuck in limbo, Congress will need to pass a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, by the end of the month. The House is expected to vote on a bill this week that would fund the government until Nov. 21.

And behemoth funding fights are still awaiting senators, who have already punted both the bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and funding for the State Department over concerns that Democrats would try to insert abortion-related language into the bills.

The Senate Appropriations Committee still has to take up a funding bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction. The bill will be controversial because Republicans are expected to include money to replace the $3.6 billion in military construction funding that Trump redirected to the border wall.

And funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considered so controversial that Republican senators say the aren’t sure that they will even bring the bill up.

Shelby characterized the spending talks as in “round one.” But asked if he could move DHS funding in his committee, Shelby demurred.

“That’s challenging,” he said, before throwing his arms up as he got in an elevator. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to do something.”

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