By Alexander Bolton – 09/15/15 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats are working with a small group of Republican appropriators in a push for an eight-week stopgap government funding measure meant to give leaders time to negotiate Ryan-Murray 2.0, a budget deal that will allow them to pass appropriations bills before Christmas.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, is leery about setting up talks that would likely result in higher spending levels and wants the continuing resolution to go into December, which Democrats fear would let the air out of potential talks.
McConnell says he is open to year-end budget talks, but he knows any deal that would increase spending — the only kind that could get President Obama’s signature — would get strong blowback from Republicans running for president.
“It would be a lose-lose proposition for conservatives,” Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said of a budget deal that lifted spending caps and either increased the deficit or offset it by raising taxes or fees.
“Why would anyone in leadership be negotiating with President Obama when we can wait for a new president and then move forward with a deal that’s acceptable to conservatives?”
McConnell told CNN’s Manu Raju last week that he is ready for a major fiscal negotiation with Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
But Senate Democrats and some GOP appropriators question if he’s really interested in anything other than a yearlong continuing resolution that keeps spending levels within the caps set by the Budget Control Act (BCA). McConnell routinely touts the BCA as one of the GOP’s biggest fiscal accomplishments of the past decade.
McConnell’s top priority is to re-elect vulnerable incumbents in purple and blue states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Hampshire and North Carolina. And while passing appropriations bills would show that Republicans can govern, it may not be worth it if the price is a budget deal that infuriates the conservative base and gives Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and other White House hopefuls new ammunition to bash the GOP establishment.
“The Budget Control Act is pretty much the only achievement conservatives have had during the Obama administration. Establishing those caps was a big victory and giving away the caps because some Republicans want to increase defense spending would be counterproductive,” said Darling, who predicted that GOP presidential candidates such as Paul would not support a deal that raised discretionary spending caps unless it was entirely offset by cuts to mandatory spending programs.
“I expect conservatives in the Senate, especially conservatives running for president, would not feel comfortable with a deal like this,” he added. “Ultimately it would be a huge defeat for conservatives to lift the BCA caps.”
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, said conservatives would likely oppose a budget deal that raises defense and nondefense spending levels along the lines of the deal Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) negotiated at the end of 2013.
“I would imagine every single Republican presidential candidate would oppose that type of deal,” he said of any bipartisan agreement that increased spending levels and raised taxes or fees or that added to the deficit.
Democrats have long made clear that any budget deal that raises the budget caps — to the extent it’s paid for — must be offset by an even mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
McConnell’s biggest concern right now is to pass a clean stopgap spending measure in time to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. He and Boehner have to figure out how to pass it through the House over the objections of 31 conservatives vowing to oppose any measure that doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood.
GOP leadership aides say a clean short-term funding measure is the only option, even though they acknowledge exactly how it gets passed by Sept. 30 remains uncertain.
McConnell told Politico in an interview last week that he wants to pass a clean short-term funding bill lasting “into the end of the year.”
Democrats fear that timeline makes it very difficult to pass spending bills at higher funding levels.
“With Barack Obama in the White House, whatever short-term resolution we pass will be clean. The back and forth of how that happens is very murky,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.
But while Senate Republicans may be adamant there won’t be a shutdown, things will take a turn for the chaotic if they can’t persuade conservatives who signed a letter pledging to vote down any stopgap that funds Planned Parenthood or round up Democratic votes for a clean measure.
While McConnell wants something lasting well into December, Senate Democrats and some GOP appropriators want a shorter-term funding measure that will put pressure on leaders to raise the budget caps, paving the way to move spending bills before Christmas.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wants to fund the government only until Thanksgiving so leaders will be motivated to strike a deal that gives appropriators enough time to move spending bills with higher levels for defense and nondefense programs.
“I want a CR [continuing resolution] that enables us to get to the budget caps and complete that negotiation, because if we come up with a deal to lift the budget caps, the process of redoing bills and all that will take another three or four weeks, so that will take us into December,” she said. “I’d like to get everything done by Thanksgiving, but that would mean a CR where we lift the caps in October and then appropriations doing work in November.”
Some Republican appropriators are onboard with a plan that sets the stage for a budget deal that gives them room to move the spending bills they’ve worked on all year.
“Chairman Rogers would support a short-term CR to keep the government operating and allow time for a broader budget deal to be reached,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). “At this point, decisions on the length have not been made.”
Some Senate Republican appropriators worry that McConnell ultimately wants to pass a yearlong stopgap measure that freezes funding levels for all of fiscal year 2016 after Congress moves past the danger of a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood.
“If we pass a yearlong CR then we’re no better than Harry Reid and the Democrats when they controlled the Senate,” said a Senate GOP appropriator, who grumbled about McConnell’s decision not to enter into budget summit talks with Democrats earlier this summer.
A senior Senate Republican aide pushed back against the notion that leaders have to reach a budget deal by late November to avoid a yearlong spending freeze.
“I don’t think there’s all that much difference between a CR that goes until Thanksgiving and into December if the goal is to get a longer-term spending bill,” said the aide.