GOP weighs trapping Democrats in Trump’s budget

With a government shutdown deadline approaching, Republicans are flirting with forcing a longer-term freeze on funding levels — forgoing the potential for extra defense spending in order to jam Democrats into Trump-era domestic limits.

Even as Congress prepares to kick the next spending cliff from Dec. 3 to the holidays, Democrats are clamoring to begin bipartisan negotiations on a sweeping government funding deal. But the GOP's burgeoning hardline approach to the talks threatens the majority party’s hopes of ushering in their own spending priorities.

It's all but inevitable that Congress passes a stopgap funding patch next month, leaving spending levels flat — what no one knows yet is how long that arrangement will last. Democratic leaders believe retiring GOP senators will provide the bipartisan support needed for a longer-term spending deal and that appropriations leaders will squash a freeze, according to a leadership source. Their bet may be misplaced, however: Republicans are internally debating how long to extend a patch that continues current levels of spending, according to sources familiar with the discussion.

If Democrats don't bend to their funding conditions, Republican leaders say they aren’t afraid of the ultimate fallback, a so-called "continuing resolution" or CR that drags out the same spending levels for the 10 months left in the budget year.

“We’ll walk away from the bill, and we'll just go with a CR. We're not going to do it," Rep. Ken Calvert of California, the ranking Republican on the House’s defense funding panel, said about Democrats digging in on their liberal funding goals.

Democrats don’t need the other party’s help to advance the $1.75 trillion climate action and safety net spending package they are working to pass. Government funding bills, however, need 60 votes in the Senate. And Republicans could benefit from a monthslong standoff on the topic, which would hamstring Democrats’ attempts to increase non-defense spending.

As inflation poses a fresh threat to President Joe Biden's sagging approval ratings, Republicans are seeking to brand themselves as cutting spending to tame ballooning prices for consumer goods — even though the national debt surged by more than $7 trillion during Trump’s presidency.

"It's a shameless approach that they've taken," Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said about GOP leaders' refusal to negotiate on a longer-term spending bill unless Democrats acquiesce on every controversial policy before negotiations can begin.

"There are a number of Republicans who believe that it's important to fund the priorities of the federal government, including the defense priorities. But I know there's an ongoing discussion in their caucus," added Van Hollen, who chairs the Senate spending panel that funds the Treasury Department and the IRS.

The GOP has adopted a “heads I win, tails you lose” attitude with another shutdown deadline in less than three weeks. If Democrats don't buckle to a slew of conservative demands before spending negotiations even begin, Republicans won’t engage in dealmaking at all, GOP leaders say. The minority party has demanded that Democrats agree up-front to status-quo spending constraints, like the longtime ban on using federal funding for abortion.

Falling back on a CR that extends current funding levels would mean flat government spending and the preservation of funding constraints Trump signed into law almost a year ago, blocking Democrats who've been eager to revamp government budgets since they took back the majority.

Under a long-term CR, "what you end up with is Donald Trump’s last negotiated budget, when he was president and we had the Senate. I would consider that a pretty egregious Democratic failure,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), his party’s top appropriator on the spending panel that handles the largest pot of non-defense funding.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is taking the GOP threat of a year-long funding patch seriously, according to a committee aide, who said Republicans seem adamant about leaving more cash for the military on the table in order to stick Democrats with Trump-era funding levels for domestic programs. Leahy blasted Republicans on the Senate floor this month, saying GOP leaders seemed determined to “thwart” President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The White House turned up pressure on Friday for a government funding deal, warning that a year-long stopgap would seriously hurt the country by hampering Covid vaccine research, delaying military construction projects and jeopardizing food safety.

A full year of static funding would sting for all the GOP lawmakers seeking a boost in defense spending, while undercutting the military and all the other federal agencies that have been lurching through the budget year without funding certainty.

“The truth is, if you take a look at the challenges that are out there with China right now and Russia, this budget needs to go,” warned Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Pentagon.

Democrats have already debuted all 12 of their annual spending bills in both chambers and passed most of those bills in the House over the summer. House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said now "we need our Republican counterparts to respond with their own proposal."

Top appropriators in both chambers have no meetings on the books to continue bipartisan negotiations, according to aides. Their first confab broke up last week, with both sides issuing warring statements.

The deadlock could complicate Democrats’ efforts to retain their House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterm elections. Even if the two parties eventually strike a deal to boost federal spending before time runs out next September, a string of short-term funding punts would feed into Republican criticism that Democrats can’t get anything done on time.

“I don’t get the sense — when it comes to keeping the trains running on time — they are particularly adept at that,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “It’s just sort of management by chaos. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. They keep putting out deadlines which end up not being met."

Government funding negotiations have taken a backseat to the jam-packed legislative to-do list, including passage of Demcorats' $1.75 trillion social spending bill and a continued standoff over lifting the debt ceiling. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), the top Republican on the Transportation-HUD spending panel, said real negotiations on a funding deal "have yet to start."

A bipartisan Senate framework for striking a funding accord isn’t in play this year, exposing the gaping distance between both parties. The Senate’s top Republican appropriator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, insists Democrats need to resurrect the so-called “Shelby-Leahy agreement” the Republican devised in 2018 with his counterpart across the aisle. Under that deal, both parties agreed to forgo controversial policies lawmakers like to call “poison-pill riders.”

But sticking points abound. Republican appropriators list more than 30 items they say Democrats must add or nix from their spending bills before GOP leaders will enter into funding negotiations. That includes dropping wage requirements for projects funded with federal cash and ensuring the Guantanamo Bay terrorist-holding site remains open. The party also wants to continue federal funding for abstinence education programs that encourage people to “refrain from non-marital sexual activity.”

Republicans want the Biden administration to spend nearly $2 billion to keep building the border wall, rather than sending that cash back to the Treasury Department, and they want to kill environmental efforts, such as allowing new emissions regulations and funding a Civilian Climate Corps.

“The question is, will we kick the can to January, February or March?" Shelby said. "And then come March, when we haven’t done anything, will we kick it to July and then September?”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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