WASHINGTON—Congressional leaders and the White House are in a race to reach a deal on funding bills before federal agencies run out of money at midnight on Dec. 20.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is the administration’s key negotiator in budget talks, met on Dec. 10 with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and top appropriators to discuss the spending package.
All sides continued to work hard to reach a bipartisan, bicameral deal on all 12 funding bills, a congressional aide familiar with the talks told The Epoch Times on Dec. 11.
However, it’s unclear how much progress has been achieved to resolve major, thorny issues and avert a government shutdown.
It would be difficult logistically to get all bills drafted and passed before the deadline, according to Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst in fiscal affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
“That’s a big lift,” he added, as there’s “fairly a lot of issues still under debate.”
The bill to fund the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services is one of the most controversial ones, according to Bogie, due to partisan disputes over the funding for Planned Parenthood.
In March, the Trump administration issued new rules to block the availability of Title X grants to clinics that provide abortions or offer abortion referrals. Democrats, however, seek to reverse that prohibition in the funding bill through “poison pill” riders.
Republicans accuse Democrats of derailing the appropriations process by adding such policy riders. In an effort to avoid disputes, both sides agreed to ban partisan riders as part of a two-year budget deal enacted in August. Lawmakers, however, have been struggling to settle on what constitutes a “poison pill.”
In the State-Foreign operations bill, there has been a similar dispute over foreign aid funds going to organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas.
Border Wall Funding
Another thorny issue in the negotiations is the funding of the wall on the border with Mexico, which has become a major source of conflict between the White House and Democrats.
Trump requested $8.6 billion for wall funding for the fiscal year 2020 to combat illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
The Republican-controlled Senate included $5 billion for Trump’s proposed border wall in its Homeland Security appropriations bill. The Democratic-held House, however, refused to provide new wall funding in its legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that a wall is a “non-starter for Democrats.”
“We had hoped the president had learned his lesson, but it appears that exactly a year after losing this same battle, the president is considering a repeat of history and another Trump shutdown,” he said on the Senate floor on Dec. 4.
In February, Trump declared the border situation a national emergency, which allowed him to redirect more than $6 billion from the Pentagon toward wall construction. In the spending bills, Democrats seek to block the president’s ability to transfer money from military construction projects to the border wall.
An administration spokesperson, however, expressed optimism about reaching a deal.
“We are continuing to work in good faith toward getting the President the best deal possible on border security and the wall, as well as a number of other issues,” a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said in an email. “Attempts to insert poison pill riders have slowed the process, but we’re hopeful that Congress will live up to the budget agreement they made over the summer, get the government funded, and provide certainty for our troops.”
Trump can declare another national emergency if Congress denies providing funds for the border wall, according to Bogie.
“I think that’s certainly possible. That’s what he did last year, so it wouldn’t shock me,” he said, adding that Trump might see some backlash from the Pentagon and some Republicans for doing that.
“Anytime you’re taking money from one place and moving it to another, you’re obviously going to upset some people,” Bogie noted.
In the three years since Trump took office, the administration built 89.5 miles of border wall as of Dec. 6, a senior administration official told The Epoch Times.
In the fiscal year 2020, the administration plans to build approximately 300 miles with the $8.6 billion requested, the official added.
The dispute around funding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also has become a major obstacle in negotiations.
Democrats demand drastic cuts to the number of beds in ICE facilities for immigrants crossing the border illegally, while the Trump administration pushes for an increase in beds to better deal with the surge of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers.
“I would think the ICE beds are the biggest obstacle,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, according to a report in The Hill.
Another Stopgap Measure
Congress has already twice passed temporary funding measures in the last several months to prevent a government shutdown. If lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, another stopgap measure, called a continuing resolution (CR), may be needed to keep U.S. government agencies open beyond the deadline.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) last week told reporters that he’s less hopeful and floated the possibility of another stopgap going into March.
Some believe that a continuing resolution for at least part of the federal government is more likely.
House Democratic leaders, however, insist that all 12 spending bills must be finalized before any of them can reach the floor.
“We are focused entirely on completing all 12 appropriations bills by the Dec. 20 deadline,” a congressional aide to House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told The Epoch Times.
“We are not contemplating another continuing resolution.”