Hill leaders no closer to deal ahead of spending deadline

Congressional negotiators are only months away from a spending deadline when the government runs out of money and the Treasury Department loses their ability to pay down the country’s debt, but after a high-stakes meeting Wednesday, members say they are no closer to a deal.

“We didn’t solve anything but we are talking,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Dick Shelby, an Alabama Republican. “The numbers are not that far apart, but that doesn’t mean that we are there.”

Fresh off a meeting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other key appropriators Wednesday, the President’s acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney accused Democrats of moving the goal posts and requesting more for domestic spending programs than they had previously asked for.

“One of the things that disappointed me when we went in there was that the last time we met with the Democrats in the House, their level of non-defense discretionary spending was $639 billion,” Mulvaney said. “That was their proposal. Today their opening bid was $647 billion. So you tell me if things were moving in the right direction. Last time I checked that is not how you compromise.”

One aide familiar with the meeting lamented that the talks had not gone well.

Behind the scenes, Democrats and Republicans both have pointed fingers at Mulvaney, a former congressman who earned a reputation as a budget slashing fiscal hawk. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, quipped Thursday that Mulvaney had been sitting at the end of the table and that members were more engaged with talking to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the upcoming negotiations.

“Mr. Mulvaney talked a little bit, but it was good to hear from Secretary Mnuchin who seemed to understand what we are doing,” Leahy said. “Secretary Mnuchin was very helpful and the questions were directed to Secretary Mnuchin. Mr. Mulvaney was down at the end of the table.”

One Republican senator who requested to speak on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the political dynamics of keeping Trump from following Mulvaney on spending negotiations said, “Mnuchin is trying to overcome that, but when the chief of staff is there all day every day in every meeting, it’s hard not to listen.”

Mulvaney and Mnuchin announced Wednesday they’d be willing to negotiate a one-year stop gap spending measure — commonly referred to in Washington shorthand as a continuing resolution — that keeps the government funded at its current levels and also would raise the debt limit and suspend the automatic spending cuts known as sequester. But, that too frustrated Democratic and Republican lawmakers who argue that cutting a bigger spending package would create more certainty for US programs and the military.

“I would like to see us get to an agreement on the budget caps that would avert the need for any continuing resolution,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.

Shelby said, “I’d like a two-year deal.”

“A (continuing resolution) is not my preference, but it would be a lot better than where we are today because of sequestration,” he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, told reporters,”One-year CR does not take care of some fundamental problems with the veteran’s administration, with the census and I will tell you from the Department of Defense point of view, it’s a disaster.”

The bottom line is that lawmakers have until September 30 to reach a spending agreement. Around that time, it is also expected the Treasury Department will reach its debt limit. If it’s not raised, the agency would be forced to prioritize which bills to pay and which ones to delay, a step that could cause the government’s credit rating to be downgraded and the US economy to suffer. Democrats and Republicans must also find a way to agree on new budget caps to stave off automatic and across-the-board budget cuts known as sequester, which both Republicans and Democrats agree would devastate domestic and military programs.