Long-standing issues over funding for the Department of Homeland Security and President Donald Trump’s border wall remain sticking points to finalizing the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending deal.
House and Senate appropriators, who remain confident they can avert a government shutdown, have also struggled to compromise on criminal justice and police reform language, amid a broader congressional failure to respond to the summer’s protests over police brutality and systemic racial injustice.
The Senate is set to pass the brief stopgap bill as soon as Thursday after the House cleared it with little fanfare on Wednesday. The measure punts the government funding deadline to Dec. 18, buying lawmakers more time to haggle over fiscal 2021 funding and billions of dollars in relief for Americans about to lose a critical lifeline when pandemic aid provisions expire at the end of the month.
But the one-week extension realistically only buys congressional leaders and appropriators a few more days. Ideally, a government funding deal and a fiscal stimulus agreement must be locked up much sooner, leaving ample time for the release of complicated legislative text and for both chambers to clear a massive injection of federal cash before the holidays.
Adding to the drama, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is objecting to the $740 billion annual defense bill which the Senate was set to vote on Friday, which could also imperil a voting agreement on the stopgap and raises the prospects of a brief government shutdown over the weekend.
When it comes to an omnibus — or a 12-bill appropriations package that would fund the government through Sept. 30 of next year — House Democratic and Senate Republican aides say the list of outstanding issues has generally narrowed in recent days, reporting significant progress since last week.
“We’re close there,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of an omnibus during her weekly press conference on Thursday. “I mean, there are still some concerns but that’s the way it always goes.”
“If we need more time, then we take more time,” she said. “But we have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it,” she said of an omnibus and government funding. “We’ve been here after Christmas, as you know.”
Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) also said Thursday that lawmakers are approaching a deal.
“We’re close,” he said, noting that he had just left a meeting about the omnibus bill. “There are a few things out there.”
Yet some of the biggest stumbling blocks in recent days amount to familiar headaches.
Senate Republicans have proposed $2 billion for Trump’s southern border wall — the issue at the heart of a historic government shutdown that began in December 2018. House Democrats proposed nothing in their fiscal 2021 appropriations bills, released earlier this year.
Trump almost certainly won’t sign a package that guts funding for one of his biggest priorities as his administration comes to a close, all while he continues a baseless fight over election results that yielded a decisive win for President-elect Joe Biden. But negotiators must balance providing cash for outgoing Trump’s southern barrier and courting the incoming Biden administration, which has vowed to cut off border wall funding upon taking office.
Issues like the border wall are among those that have trickled up to the leadership level. But Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees DHS funding, otherwise reported progress on immigration-related spending issues Wednesday.
“It’s going fine,” he said. “Look, there’s things we don’t agree on and there will be some things in the bill that I would have done different.” But overall, he said he felt Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the chair of the DHS spending panel, was “working in good faith.”
Reaching middle ground on criminal justice language is also proving difficult for negotiators.
Earlier this year, House Democrats included language in their fiscal 2021 spending bill for the Justice Department that would tie federal police grants to major reforms like chokehold bans and an end to racial profiling. Republicans argued that such reforms are often beyond the sole jurisdiction of local police departments and therefore, the effort amounted to “defunding the police.”
Since then, Democrats have sought smaller wins to respond to the reckoning over race, such as funding for research on reducing racial and ethnic inequalities in the justice system. They have also pursued reports on Capitol Police training policies and procedures to eliminate unconscious bias and racial profiling. Republicans say they’ve been working to compromise on criminal justice issues.
Republicans have also lamented yearslong policy riders that Democrats have sought to remove. Those include provisions that involve protections for the greater sage-grouse, in addition to a provision related to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass.
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats must “resist the temptation to play brinkmanship with long-settled policy issues, or push poison pill riders that they know would take the process.”
Energy and water issues have also posed pitfalls, and omnibus talks have also bled into other year-end legislative business, complicating the passage of a major water infrastructure bill in the Senate, for example.
POLITICO reported on Wednesday that Shelby is objecting to language in that water infrastructure measure, which relates to the level of spending for port and harbor dredging that would be authorized by the bill. Shelby wants the legislation to be included in the omnibus, his spokesperson confirmed.
Whether the one-week stopgap is enough time to clinch a compromise on a government funding package remains to be seen, although House and Senate aides say they’re optimistic about working in a bipartisan way to close the remaining gaps.
If lawmakers fail to get a deal on government funding, they could resort to a longer stopgap spending bill through early next year.
“These bills need to pass,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Wednesday. “Hopefully the appropriators in the Senate and the House will come together and resolve differences, which are not the majority of the bill at all. The majority of items have been agreed to.”
Heather Caygle and Annie Snider contributed to this report.