Democrats Poised to Block Latest GOP Plan to Avoid Shutdown

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “We must lift the spending caps for defense and also those urgent domestic priorities, in equal measure.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “We must lift the spending caps for defense and also those urgent domestic priorities, in equal measure.” J. Scott Applewhite/AP

This story has been updated to reflect the introduction of a new CR that would fund agencies through January 19. 

Democrats have rejected a Republican plan to fully fund the Defense Department for the remainder of fiscal 2018 while continuing stopgap appropriations into January for the rest of government, setting back negotiations to avoid a shutdown just before Christmas.

House Republicans had pushed the proposal for a joint continuing resolution-Defense omnibus to boost spending at the Pentagon as lawmakers negotiated revised spending caps for domestic federal agencies, but Senate Democrats have effectively killed that option before it got off the ground. Nearly all of the caucus wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., telling them the idea was a non-starter.

The Democrats said such a measure would neglect domestic priorities such as homeland security, veterans and agriculture. They instead encouraged Republicans to continue to engage in bipartisan talks.

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“As you know, Democrats and Republicans are engaged in bipartisan negotiations to craft a budget agreement for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 that would avoid devastating sequestration cuts to defense and domestic programs,” the senators wrote. “We urge you to keep your commitment to the bipartisan budget negotiations and forego any plans to consider partisan legislation known as a ‘CRomnibus.’”

House Republicans met Wednesday afternoon to discuss their strategy going forward on upcoming spending votes. By Wednesday evening, they had introduced their Defense-plus-CR plan.

“Funding national defense is a top priority, especially in these uncertain times of instability around the globe,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. “This continuing resolution will fund national defense for the entire fiscal year and provide additional funds for missile defense.”

He added that repeated stopgap funding measures were “not the preferred way to do the nation’s fiscal business,” but necessary to buy the House, Senate and White House time to come to an agreement on topline spending levels. The CR would stave off a shutdown through Jan. 19, 2018.

“This funding is critical to our nation’s stability, our economy and for the wellbeing of the American people,” Frelinghuysen said. “It is essential that Congress maintain the programs and services that all Americans depend on.”

House Democrats, labeling the proposal “Puntagon,” said on Wednesday the measure would “risk damage” from a “shutdown or cuts.”  

Current appropriations fund agencies through Dec. 22. In addition to the immediate shutdown threat, lawmakers must agree to a spending package for the remainder of fiscal 2018. Congress is working on a plan to raise the spending caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act and avoid a sequestration. Negotiators will likely seek a two-year reprieve from those caps, as they did in late 2013 and 2015.

Democrats, who hold leverage as any Senate measure to raise spending caps would require 60 votes, have maintained that any increase for defense spending must be matched with an equal uptick for non-defense agencies.

“We must lift the spending caps for defense and also those urgent domestic priorities, in equal measure,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Tuesday. “That has been the basis of successful budget agreements going back several years, and as recently as April of this year. It was parity between defense and nondefense and that is how it ought to stay. That is what brought us home into a good agreement and no shutdowns in previous years.”

Current caps restrict spending to $549 billion for defense and $516 billion for non-defense agencies in fiscal 2018. House Republicans are seeking to raise that number to $640 billion for defense, a figure Democrats would agree to if domestic agencies receive an equal increase. Even a continuing resolution for the remainder of fiscal 2018 would exceed the existing caps, according to the Congressional Budget Office. About $2.4 billion would be sequestered from defense accounts, while about $2.3 billion would be sequestered from non-defense accounts, CBO estimated.

The Office of Management and Budget would make the final determination on the amounts of any sequestration. An OMB official previously said there is no risk of the administration revoking any funds in 2017. The office typically assesses whether a sequestration is necessary in January. If a CR is still in place at that point, the official said, the administration would work with Congress to ensure that “no unintended sequestration occurs.”

Democrats this week appeared to have backed off their demands that Congress resolve the status of certain undocumented immigrants who will become vulnerable to deportation in early 2018 due to a policy Trump announced earlier this year as a condition of any spending measure carrying agencies into January. Lawmakers are still negotiating an agreement on that issue, subsidies to stabilize health insurance markets, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and emergency funding for disaster relief, all of which could get wrapped into a forthcoming spending bill.  

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