Border wall, impeachment battle imperil budget progress

Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst, John Barrasso
In this Oct. 29, 2019, photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, walks to the podium with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A bitter fight over funding for border fencing is imperiling Capitol Hill efforts to forge progress on more than $1.4 trillion worth of overdue spending bills. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Senate passed a long-overdue, $209 billion bundle of bipartisan spending bills Thursday, but a bitter fight over funding demanded by President Donald Trump for border fencing imperils broader Capitol Hill efforts to advance $1.4 trillion worth of annual Cabinet agency budgets.

The 84-9 vote sends the measure into House-Senate negotiations but doesn’t much change the big picture. There has been little progress, if any, on the tricky trade-offs needed to balance Democratic demands for social programs with President Donald Trump’s ballooning border wall demands.

To amplify the point, Democrats shortly thereafter filibustered a much larger measure anchored by the $695 billion Pentagon funding bill, protesting Trump’s plans to again transfer billions of dollars from the Pentagon to the border wall project. The mostly party-line vote triggered a familiar round of finger-pointing.

“This delay is because they insist on including in this bill authority for President Trump to raid American tax dollars from our military — money that is intended for specific military priorities — to pay for his wall, which he promised that Mexico would pay for,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “And that is unacceptable.”

Passage of the annual appropriations bills is one of the few areas in which divided government in Washington has been able to deliver results in the Trump era, despite last winter’s 35-day partial government shutdown. Trump has only reluctantly signed the measures, however, and the White House has been unyielding so far on its wall demands during this spending round.

A sense of optimism in the aftermath of a July budget and debt deal has yielded to pessimism now, and the poisonous political fallout from the ongoing impeachment battle isn’t helping matters. The budget pact blended a must-do increase in the government’s borrowing cap with relief from the return of stinging automatic budget cuts known as sequestration that were left over from a long-failed 2011 budget deal.

At issue are the agency appropriations bills that Congress passes each year to keep the government running. The hard-won budget and debt deal this summer produced a top-line framework for the 12 yearly spending bills, but filling in the details is proving difficult.

While it appears likely that lawmakers will prevent a government shutdown next month with a government-wide stopgap spending bill, the impasse over agency appropriations bills shows no signs of breaking.

Democrats say White House demands for $5 billion for Trump’s long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall have led the GOP-controlled Senate to shortchange Democratic domestic priorities.

They say negotiations can’t begin in earnest until spending hikes permitted under the July budget deal are allocated among the 12 appropriations subcommittees more to their liking. Trump is demanding a huge border funding increase that comes mostly at the expense of a major health and education spending bill.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Democrats “seem more focused on scoring political points than ensuring our military has the certainty and funding it needs to counter our adversaries.”

“I am not optimistic,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “I don’t see the Senate taking action that would enable us to have an active negotiation with them. They haven’t set the groundwork. And until they figure out the (subcommittee allocations) — although we are having very nice conversations — I don’t see progress.”

Current stopgap spending authority expires Nov. 21, and another measure will be needed to prevent a shutdown reprising last year’s 35-day partial shuttering of the government. All sides want to avert a repeat shutdown, but it can’t be entirely ruled out because of the dysfunction and bitterness engulfing Washington these days.

Staff discussions on a new stopgap continuing resolution, or CR in Capitol Hill shorthand, haven’t yielded agreement yet. Democrats, including Lowey, have floated the idea of a stopgap continuing resolution into February, which would likely punt the budget battle past any Senate impeachment trial.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is pressing for a CR of shorter duration in hopes of wrapping up the unfinished budget work by Christmas. McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke by telephone on Monday, congressional aides said, in hopes of breaking the logjam.

But no progress was made at a follow-up staff session on Tuesday that included White House representatives. The White House is playing a strong hand on the border wall since it has begun employing its transfer authorities to shift billions of dollars of Pentagon funding toward wall construction — far more than it has obtained through the regular funding process.

The White House is demanding $5 billion in appropriations for the wall this budget year — up from $1.4 billion now. It is also demanding to keep its powers to transfer Pentagon dollars as well — and to get Congress to refill Pentagon military base construction projects tapped last month to pay for up to $3.6 billion worth of border fencing.

A senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door session said it was unproductive.

“There is such animosity and bitterness and confrontation, it’s going to be really difficult to get agreement on anything,” said former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “So I worry about whether or not we can even pass a CR.”