Government funding and the punt formation

For a brief half hour or so Tuesday, it seemed like what was impossible just 24 hours prior was on the table...

Posted: Dec 19, 2018 2:48 PM
Updated: Dec 19, 2018 2:48 PM

For a brief half hour or so Tuesday, it seemed like what was impossible just 24 hours prior was on the table: an all-encompassing spending deal that would mean 100% of the government would be funded through the fiscal year at the levels agreed upon in March.

Naturally, that all fell apart in short order, but the exercise proved President Donald Trump was willing to back off his $5 billion wall funding demand -- and that the point had finally been reached where a punt of the spending fight into next year was possible.

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Bottom line

Trump signaled he'd step back from the shutdown brink, and back off his wall funding demand. Lawmakers made clear they want to spend the holidays at home. After days of zero movement, things are coming together for a short-term government spending resolution process that could start as soon as Wednesday.

The plan

Senate Republicans have drafted a stopgap funding bill which would fund the 25% of the government that runs out of money on Friday. The new shutdown deadline would be February 8, sources say. Senate Democrats are prepared to back the proposal, which could ostensibly move through the Senate as soon as Wednesday, sources say.

Where the President stands

There's one obvious potential problem: Trump hasn't publicly signed off on a stopgap plan that doesn't give him any semblance of the $5 billion wall request. Senate GOP aides were comfortable he'd be on board with the proposal -- it is more or less the only game in town, and the President has been advised repeatedly that a shutdown, particularly given his planned departure for Mar-a-Lago at the end of this week, would be a PR battle he simply could not, and would not, win. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, referring to a stopgap measure that would keep the government open until February, told reporters Wednesday morning that "he'll take a look at that, certainly."

Such a short-term bill, Conway, argued, "doesn't mean the President is backing down from an essential promise ... to keep us safe."

All that said, when it comes to spending bills, nothing's a done deal 'til the President puts his signature on the bill.

The stakes

If the President signs a stopgap spending bill into February, the next spending fight will be with Speaker, not Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi. Democrats will control the House. In other words, if the President signs a stopgap bill, any hope for border wall funding from Congress is effectively dead.

Worth noting

Not sure there's ever been a more dramatic reversal than going from sitting in the Oval Office and saying on live television: "I'll tell you what: I am proud to shut down the government for border security. I will take the mantle" ...

... to a little more than one week later sitting on the brink of another short-term spending extension that doesn't provide a dime of border wall money. This is also reality: Democrats effectively have veto authority in the Senate, and their leadership in both chambers made clear they wouldn't move an inch on their opposition to wall money.

What to watch today

  • Senate Republicans should announce their next steps on government funding

  • How Trump responds

  • The House (finally) returns to Washington Wednesday night. That will be the first opportunity to get a sense of how they'll cobble the votes together for a short-term bill.

To keep an eye on

All eyes will soon shift to the House to see how its lawmakers react to a stopgap measure. Democrats have signaled they'll back the measure, but in what will be one of -- if not the -- final votes of the House Republican majority, it would only be natural that a spending bill would create one more final major vote-counting drama.

Also to keep an eye on

While Senate GOP leadership and Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby are prepared to move forward with the stopgap proposal, there were more than a few GOP senators Tuesday night, specifically those on the appropriations panel, who wanted to keep pushing toward a broader spending bill with Democrats, multiple sources tell me. Some even wanted to force Democrats' hand by starting the process on all the remaining spending bills and force them to vote against.

It's just not the path leadership wants to take at this point with a clock that has mostly run out, and nothing is stopping those senators from continuing those talks before a new February 8 deadline. But just keep an eye on this, particularly if the President starts waffling. It only takes one senator to slow up a stopgap spending bill ...

And one more thing

If, as appears almost certain at this point, the stopgap funding measure is the path forward, it will likely be the last legislative train leaving the station in the 115th Congress.

That means a whole lot of lawmakers will be desperately trying to attach things to it (for example, a handful of senators Tuesday night were already pushing the inclusion of a lengthy lands bill package). Most, if not all, of these efforts will be rejected for fear of weighing the measure down, but there remains a long list of end-of-year items, from tax extenders to disaster relief to an extension of the Violence Against Women Act, that lawmakers had planned to plug into an end-of-year spending deal. What, if any, of those items make it into the final measure will be worth watching.

The deal that wasn't

It started with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Fox News, signaling not only that Trump had backed off his $5 billion wall demand but that the White House was explicitly backing the bipartisan Senate Department of Homeland Security appropriations measure. That proposal includes $1.6 billion for border security in the form of fencing and barriers, as well as broader financing for border security.

On its face, it was essentially the offer Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer put on the table in November -- and it opened up the possibility the Senate could move all seven remaining appropriations bills as a package.

There was a catch, though: the deal would have to include nearly $1 billion in transferred money for the Trump administration to use for its immigration priorities. That money would have explicit prohibitions against use for any physical wall, but Democratic opposition to just about all of the Trump administration's immigration priorities made the proposal a non-starter, according to their leaders.

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