Shutdown averted, lawmakers fret about next looming deadline

The latest shutdown threat may have been averted but some lawmakers are already worried about the next government funding deadline.

While leaders on both sides of the aisle were able to come to agreement earlier this month on a topline for the 12 annual government funding bills for fiscal year 2024, spending cardinals say they have yet to learn how the dollars will be divided among the measures as spending talks continue.

Without those allocations, lawmakers say they can’t begin crafting the individual bills.

In comments to reporters this week, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she’s “concerned about the lack of a resolution” on the matter of allocations for the individual bills. 

“This has been dragging on for a long time and I really don’t know why,” Collins said. 

Some senior appropriators say they were hopeful they would receive the allocations last week, others the week before that.

But as talks continue, so-called spending cardinals are pointing to areas like funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other nondefense programs as potential sticking points for top negotiators.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — head of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriation subcommittee — expressed confidence earlier this week in top appropriators in either chamber striking a deal.

But he added he thinks “they’re struggling,” while noting a potential dispute “over Labor-H versus Homeland,” referring to the annual DHS and Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) funding bills.

“Of course, none of us know whether or not the supplemental will pass and that has money for Homeland and that impacts it,” Cole said.

Senators have been negotiating a major border policy and foreign package for weeks. The plan is expected to have severe restrictions on asylum, drum up border security measures like wall construction, and include aid for Ukraine and Israel.

“If the supplemental passes, there’s a lot of money in there, and that may well impact what you would normally do for Homeland as well,” Cole said. “So, I think they’re all trying to be cautious and get there to help.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who heads the subcommittee that crafts DOL and HHS funding, said on Thursday that top negotiators seem to be “closing in” on a deal, but added that DHS funding “seems to be the real tension.”

Murray also said earlier in the week that she’s heard Democrats are fighting for numbers that resemble the levels of the bipartisan funding bills they marked up in the Senate “as close as possible,” noting “that there’s some resistance in the House to that.”

But she added that she doesn’t believe lawmakers “have the time to wait” until Congress tackles a supplemental bill when it comes to finalizing the subcommittee allocations, particularly if lawmakers hope to avoid passing another stopgap in the weeks ahead.

“Once you have the [allocations] it takes time to write the bills, and it’s not an easy process,” Baldwin said Wednesday, while acknowledging how far apart both chamber’s sets of funding bills are and the difficulties that await in conferencing the legislation into measures that can pass a divided Congress.

In brief comments to The Hill on Wednesday, Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is leading negotiations with House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas), also said that Democrats “are waiting for the House to make a significant move” when asked for an update on negotiations over the allocations.

Thanks to a stopgap measure passed Thursday, Congress was able to punt another shutdown deadline, kicking the next target dates into March to buy time for broader spending talks.

Under the bill, Congress agreed to extend funding at temporary levels for agencies that fall under four of the 12 annual appropriations bills through March 1. That includes dollars for the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies.

The bill extends the deadline for the remaining eight bills through Mar. 8, when agencies like the departments of Defense (DOD), DOL, Education, State, Homeland Security and others face funding lapses.

Appropriators on both sides of the aisle are confident the extra time will be enough for them to finish crafting the 12 annual funding bills but acknowledge it’s a time crunch that will only get tighter the longer it takes for them to ramp up talks on their own bills.

“We don’t have a hell of a lot of time,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who heads the subcommittee that oversees funding for the State Department and other agencies, said this week, noting the amount of time it can take to pass the funding bills even after negotiations are finalized.

“Just the technical aspects of it, [the Congressional Budget Office] usually takes about five days to review these bills, and then we’ve got the 72-hour thing here in the House,” he said. “And then you’ve got, for example, the readouts, so the staff has to get together and literally … read every comma, every sentence of the bill and the report.”

“We have enough time today,” he said Wednesday, but he added the cardinals need to receive their subcommittee allocations quickly to finish the work.

Senior appropriators from both chambers will also be heading into negotiations with drastically different funding bills, as the House wrote their spending bills to levels significantly lower than the budget caps agreement struck between President Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year.

The House bills also include a list of riders in areas like abortion and diversity that Democrats have denounced as “poison pills,” while House conservatives have come out strongly against the bills crafted in the Senate that they say are too high.

Also on the minds of lawmakers is an impending April deadline for automatic cuts to defense and nondefense programs if Congress doesn’t finish its funding work on time – a penalty Republicans and Democrats alike are hoping to avoid.

“I’m worried about that,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), spending cardinal for Defense funding in the upper chamber, said on the matter on Thursday. “I mean, the truth is, there needs to be some urgency.”

Rafael Bernal contributed. 

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