WASHINGTON -- House leaders are racing the clock and bracing for inevitable blowback on an emerging government-wide spending bill that's likely to largely maintain President Donald Trump's tactical ability to fund his much-sought border wall.
As is often the case, California rivals Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy are feuding, this time about a longshot McCarthy bid for a controversial dam project that would provide more water for Central Valley farmers. Progress has slowed, though a top-level meeting between House Speaker Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the frustrated chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on Tuesday generated pledges to redouble their efforts.
Nobody wants a shutdown when a stopgap spending bill expires at the end of next week, but time is running out and it's not at all certain that negotiations can close in time for the Senate to process a year-end spending package. Another temporary funding bill, called a continuing resolution, or CR, could be needed to avert a repeat of last year's 35-day partial federal shutdown.
At issue is almost $1.4 trillion for day-to-day operations of federal agencies. This year's annual appropriations cycle was supposed to be relatively easy after this summer's budget and debt deal reversed a sharp set of spending cuts that would have otherwise struck both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
But a Senate GOP move to more than triple a key border wall account to meet Trump's demands sparked a two-month stalemate. Negotiations are back on track, with most of Trump's $5 billion wall demand being returned to other domestic accounts.
It's complicated, but Trump has a significant tactical advantage that allows him to obtain several billion dollars for his border project. That's because he will refuse to sign any bill that denies his wall request outright or curtails his powers to transfer money from Pentagon accounts to border construction. Another option is to keep the Homeland Security Department budget largely frozen in place under a continuing resolution while maintaining those same transfer authorities that Trump has used to shift almost $7 billion to wall accounts even as Congress directly appropriates far less — $1.4 billion for the 2019 budget year.
The no-win spot that anti-wall forces find themselves in promises to generate unrest among some progressives, though they may be reluctant to give leaders much blowback during the height of impeachment.
For their part, GOP conservatives usually just oppose the annual spending bills, which are then reluctantly signed by Trump after last-minute drama.
House Democrats sought to block Trump's power to transfer Pentagon funding to Trump's project, but his veto threats are likely to succeed in getting Democrats to drop the language in the closed-door talks. Negotiators on a separate $738 billion Pentagon policy bill dumped companion language in their House-Senate talks.
But funding through transferring money from other accounts is subject to legal challenges. A federal judge in Texas on Tuesday issued a nationwide injunction to block Trump from using $3.6 billion in military base construction funds to pay for border fencing and other barriers.
Democrats griped that Republicans were slow to make concessions on more than 100 items that were in dispute, citing as an example House GOP Leader McCarthy's effort to insert a long-stalled dam project. Pelosi had successfully blocked the project for years even when her negotiating position was weaker when relegated to the minority.
Republicans countered that Democrats were slow to give up their pet priorities as well and that some of their demands should be deemed poison pills and dropped automatically.
The delays have pushed back deadlines. House action on the spending package won't occur until next week, when impeachment and a major trade bill are also on the agenda. Leaders hope the Senate could follow and complete action by the end of next week, but any individual senator could mess up the plan under the Senate's rules.
“We want to get the appropriations bills to the Senate as quickly as possible so the Senate has the opportunity to consider them. So that would be the priority," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday.