Republican Leaders Preparing to Make Deal on Raising Spending Caps

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and House Speaker John Boehner. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and House Speaker John Boehner. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Even as con­ser­vat­ives in both cham­bers are clam­or­ing for spend­ing cuts, not just to Planned Par­ent­hood but to a slew of nondefense pro­grams, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are pre­par­ing to be­gin mak­ing a deal with Pres­id­ent Obama to raise spend­ing caps that will hit next year.

On Wed­nes­day, Con­gress will pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion fund­ing the gov­ern­ment for just over two months, put­ting an end to fears of a gov­ern­ment shut­down this week—for now. On the ho­ri­zon, Con­gress faces a po­ten­tially bit­ter battle in Decem­ber to keep the gov­ern­ment open once again, this time with a new speak­er of the House and an em­boldened group of con­ser­vat­ives in the House.

With that fight loom­ing, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell spoke last week with House Speak­er John Boehner and Obama to be­gin ne­go­ti­ations that will raise the se­quest­ra­tion spend­ing caps over the next two years, Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers Tues­day.

The phone call last Thursday marks the first step by Re­pub­lic­ans in re­spond­ing to a months-long fili­buster push by Demo­crats, who re­fused to take up any spend­ing bills un­til the ma­jor­ity agreed to raise spend­ing caps on nondefense pro­grams. Re­pub­lic­ans had pre­vi­ously agreed to raise the caps only for de­fense spend­ing—a no-go for Demo­crats, who worry that such a con­ces­sion will only lead to deep cuts to the party’s favored pro­grams, in­clud­ing per­en­ni­al tar­gets like wel­fare. The de­fense deal wasn’t much more pop­u­lar with con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, con­cerned about out-of-con­trol fed­er­al spend­ing.

Mc­Con­nell warned his party just two weeks ago that they would have to con­cede to Demo­crats on some points in or­der to get any real spend­ing bills through Con­gress over the next year. “We are in­ev­it­ably go­ing to end up in ne­go­ti­ations that will crack the Budget Con­trol Act once again,” he said.

Boehner has been much more tight-lipped about what he would like to see in next year’s budget, even be­fore an­noun­cing his resig­na­tion last week. And it’s un­clear how his likely re­place­ment, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy, will pro­ceed—par­tic­u­larly as he courts con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers bent on spend­ing cuts in his bid for speak­er.

Mc­Con­nell, who has said re­peatedly that he would ne­go­ti­ate dir­ectly with the White House over spend­ing—ig­nor­ing pleas from Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in Con­gress to sit down at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table with them—at­temp­ted to cut the minor­ity out of the ne­go­ti­ations in his talk with Boehner and Obama last week, two Demo­crat­ic aides said.

Ac­cord­ing to the aides, Obama briefed Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi dur­ing a pre­vi­ously sched­uled meet­ing just after the call. Mc­Con­nell had asked that the ne­go­ti­ations move for­ward between just him­self, Boehner, and Obama. But both the pres­id­ent and Boehner pushed back, in­sist­ing that in or­der to pass an even­tu­al deal through Con­gress, they’ll need the sup­port of Demo­crat­ic lead­ers on both sides of the Cap­it­ol.

Aides to both Mc­Con­nell and Boehner de­clined to com­ment on the call.

Since then, the White House has worked to loop Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in on dis­cus­sions lead­ing up to their talks with Boehner and Mc­Con­nell, work­ing largely on a staff level at this point, one aide said. Re­id met with Shawn Donovan, the dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget, to dis­cuss the is­sue last week.

Mc­Con­nell said Thursday that he hopes to set new top-line spend­ing levels for both fisc­al years 2016 and 2017, al­low­ing Con­gress to go through the reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess next year and pass 12 spend­ing bills—one of Mc­Con­nell’s ma­jor goals as lead­er—rather than passing an­oth­er last-minute, shut­down-avoid­ing con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion as the two cham­bers have re­peatedly done over the last sev­er­al years.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray, who along with Rep. Paul Ry­an ne­go­ti­ated the last two-year budget deal to pass through Con­gress, said Tues­day that she was hope­ful that Re­pub­lic­ans would sit down with Demo­crats and come to an­oth­er spend­ing deal after passing the two-month con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion later this week.

“I am hop­ing this next dead­line can be dif­fer­ent. I am hop­ing we can avoid the drama, avoid the count­down clocks, avoid the ab­surd last-minute swerve, and do what we did in 2013: work to­geth­er, ne­go­ti­ate, and reach an­oth­er bi­par­tis­an budget deal,” Mur­ray said. “I am con­fid­ent we can do it be­cause we did it be­fore—and it will be up to Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to join us at the table so we can do it again.”

House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er warned earli­er Tues­day that Demo­crats will not ac­cept the planned se­quest­ra­tion cuts to nondefense pro­grams next year, not­ing that Obama and even House Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers have said re­peatedly that those fund­ing num­bers “will not work.” Ab­sent an agree­ment, Hoy­er warned, Con­gress will be headed for yet an­oth­er shut­down.

“We don’t want to shut down the gov­ern­ment, but at the same time we’re not go­ing to be dra­gooned in­to do­ing any­thing and everything just be­cause they threaten to shut down gov­ern­ment,” Hoy­er told re­port­ers Tues­day.

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