Congress

Bumbling Congress gives Trump the budget freeze he wanted

Lawmakers are struggling to reach a deal to fund the government, and every delay takes a bite out of the huge spending increase they previously secured.

Donald Trump

White House budget hawks who have failed to rein in government spending in the Trump era might get a major win — by default.

Top Republicans and Democrats are fumbling in their attempts to clinch a deal to fund the government over the next year. The result could be a government-wide spending freeze — exactly what Mick Mulvaney and the rest of President Donald Trump’s negotiating team sought months ago.

With no agreement in sight and impeachment captivating the Capitol, it’s increasingly likely Washington will be forced to accept another temporary funding bill in December. Lawmakers are already eyeing a monthslong stopgap to stave off a Christmastime shutdown. In the worst-case scenario, a full-year extension could follow.

It’s an outcome that would not only highlight congressional dysfunction but also deny the Pentagon and domestic programs potentially critical funding boosts.

Congress passed a massive budget deal earlier this year, but lawmakers still need to pass individual spending bills to divvy up the money. Until those measures are signed into law, Mulvaney and his allies get precisely the same budget restraints they proposed in June.

“They’re getting it right now,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “Sometimes you might think you want something, but that’s not good for the military and that’s not good for a lot of stuff.”

GOP senators and aides said the administration is still divided over how strongly to pursue a long-term spending deal with Congress. Trump has indicated to congressional Republicans that his top priority is preserving his powers to transfer more funds to his border wall, something he receives under a continuing resolution, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.

Senior appropriators said they can still reach a deal and pass full-year spending bills this winter or even next spring. In one sign of progress over the weekend, negotiators announced they had agreed on overall spending levels for each of the dozen bills that fund the government — which means the measures can now be written and then start coming to the floor.

But lawmakers also acknowledge there’s a very real possibility Congress falls flat on its face despite securing a breakthrough agreement in August that increased federal spending by $320 billion over two years and raised the debt ceiling.

“Mitch McConnell hasn’t been particularly helpful on that and we can’t necessarily force them either,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a top progressive leader who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

“We’re hoping to get it done by December, if not, we’ll see if it gets extended again,” Pocan said of the temporary funding bill signed into law last week. “Once you get to February or March, it’s unlikely you don’t have a forever CR.”

Many Republicans also oppose a full-year punt, which would infuriate Pentagon officials who have warned that doing so would hurt military preparedness. McConnell, in particular, pushed for a budget deal and has spoken about the importance of avoiding a continuing resolution on a daily basis.

“Some people do [want a CR] I’m certainly not in the camp. One of the things that [Trump] is most proud of is rebuilding the military. You do a CR, a CR, a CR you lose all the benefit of that,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

“A lot of the defense guys are going to dig in our heels,” he added.

Though a spending freeze was indeed the White House’s opening position in budget talks, the Office of Management and Budget disputed any notion that people within the administration are pushing for a yearlong continuing resolution.

“We don’t know where that’s coming from,” OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel. “Everyone in the administration who is involved in this conversation is committed to getting full-year spending bills.”

Acting OMB Director Russell Vought is seen as a fierce deficit hawk on Capitol Hill. He and Mulvaney were largely sidelined during budget talks earlier this year, with lawmakers dealing instead with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

For conservatives, a deadlock between Democratic and Republican leaders might be the best possible outcome: The budget deal’s spending increases won’t go into effect, Trump keeps his border wall transfer authority and Congress appears paralyzed during Democrats’ impeachment drive.

“Freezing spending would be better than increasing spending,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said. “With a Democratic House consumed with impeachment, there is very little appetite for the sorts of common-sense fiscal policies that could rein in our out-of-control deficits and debt.”

“The only good thing about that is it freezes spending. I like that because that’s about the only way you can actually get spending frozen,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) added. Both voted against the short-term continuing resolution that Congress passed last week to avoid a shutdown.

Negotiators have struggled for months to resolve the ongoing stalemate, with funding for Trump’s border wall among several disputes. And few believe Congress will be able to pass all 12 spending bills in just about three weeks.

Every week without a full-year agreement, it costs both parties a big chunk of the hard-fought budget boost they won this summer, which was set to add tens of billions of dollars this fiscal year alone while staving off hundreds of billions more in automatic cuts stemming from the 2011 sequester law.

In the meantime, Congress has cleared two stopgap funding bills in as many months. And each of those short-term measures becomes slightly trickier for House and Senate leaders to pass as frustration builds on both sides.

Democrats emerged with some victories in the legislation passed last week, including an extra roughly $30 billion for defense and domestic programs, though it's just a fraction of the overall deal. Democrats also claimed credit for $2.5 billion for the census and a provision that protects $7.6 billion in highway spending that would otherwise have been canceled.

This week, 20 Senate Republicans and 181 House Republicans opposed a short-term continuing resolution, with many eager to crack down on the debt and others because they dislike the idea that Congress would leave for the Thanksgiving recess without finalizing a spending deal.

“Senators and congressmen are not wanting to be accountable. If we don’t get things done on time we shouldn’t be leaving,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who joined a group of defense hawks this summer pushing for budget increases.

Democrats, meanwhile, insist that a yearlong stopgap bill is a nonstarter, acknowledging that it would essentially forfeit billions of dollars for military and domestic programs. It also means all their work to craft this summer’s budget deal would amount to a debt ceiling lift with no real prize for Democrats who had demanded spending increases as well.

“I am concerned about the prospect of a yearlong CR,” said Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, a member of Democratic leadership who also sits on the House spending panel. “There is so much we need to do and accomplish.”