Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he hopes the current fights are not a preview of what's to come.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he hopes the current fights are not a preview of what's to come. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Lawmakers Worry Current Squabbles Bode Poorly for Looming Sequester, Shutdown Fights

"If we can’t do this, what the heck can we do on something much bigger?" key GOP senator asks.

As lawmakers stare down yet another series of deadlines for avoiding major spending disruptions at federal agencies, some are starting to express concern that a lack of progress on more immediate issues is a sign of an inevitable clash later this year.

Congress and the White House are currently butting heads over a disaster spending package, which would provide billions of dollars in aid to states and territories devastated by flooding, wildfires and hurricanes. The Trump administration has repeatedly disrupted negotiations, lawmakers in both parties have said, lodging concerns particularly about spending in Puerto Rico.

The disaster relief bill serves as a prelude to a much larger pending fight: at the end of September, current appropriations for all of government are set to expire. Before Congress can set spending levels, lawmakers must first agree to a budget deal that raises caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the full weight of which will kick back in for fiscal 2020. Lawmakers must also raise or suspend the debt ceiling, which the Treasury is expected to hit around the same time.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are worried the current flap bodes poorly for striking the necessary deals.

“If we can’t do this, what the heck can we do on something much bigger?” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters this week. “I hope this is not a preview of coming events.”

He added: “If we are not able to work out an agreement on the disaster funding, we are going to have some real problems, I’m afraid, on the big appropriations.” Shelby said after meeting with Mike Pence that the vice president “fully understands that we’re facing sequester if we don’t get another” deal to lift spending caps.

A Democratic appropriations aide expressed similar concern.

“There’s always concern about our ability to get stuff done in the current environment,” the aide said. “We have a president who shut down the government for 35 days all over a wall. So of course we’re worried about the challenge of getting a budget caps deal.”

Congressional leaders have said they have begun talks to reach a two-year agreement to lift spending caps, similar to the deals lawmakers struck in 2013, 2015 and 2017. President Trump has repeatedly stated that he will not go along with Democratic demands for a roughly equal increase in defense and non-defense discretionary spending.