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November 10, 2020 2:00 PM, EST

Mitch McConnell Moves to Avoid US Shutdown With Spending Bills

Mitch McConnell walks to his office from the Senate Floor at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 9.Mitch McConnell walks to his office from the Senate Floor at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 9. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

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Senate Republicans released 12 bills to fund the government through next September, the first move toward negotiations with House Democrats that will be vital to avoid a federal shutdown in December.

Successful talks would remove one element of uncertainty for the U.S. economy, with President-elect Joe Biden’s victory still being disputed by President Donald Trump and a continuing stalemate in separate negotiations over a fiscal stimulus bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Nov. 9 that funding the government with complete full-year spending bills is a top priority in the post-election lame duck session that began this week and runs through mid-December.

Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, swiftly highlighted several objections to the Republicans’ proposals, which he said would need to be addressed in talks with the House. Among them were the absence of emergency funding to combat COVID-19.

Passing a funding plan through next September would avoid the need for a stopgap measure like the one the federal government has been running on since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. The current so-called continuing resolution expires Dec. 11.

Trump presided over the longest government shutdown in history in early 2019, and he poses a wild card in the talks once again. The spending bills offer Trump one more chance to pursue policy objectives such as border-wall funding — which Senate Republicans included in their legislation Nov. 10.

Leahy blasted Republicans’ push for almost $2 billion for a “useless border wall.” In a statement, he also said Democrats object to abortion-related language limiting funding for family planning, the spending levels for education and environmental regulation enforcement, and appropriations for immigration detention.

House ‘Reviewing’

Still, lawmakers have expressed hopes that a deal can be done in time to avoid a shutdown. Democrats can’t count on having unified control of Congress next year, needing to make history in winning two runoff races in typically Republican Georgia in January. That gives them less incentive to wait on the spending bills until the Biden administration takes office.

“House appropriators are reviewing these bills right now and are prepared to quickly begin bipartisan negotiations,” said House Appropriations spokesman Evan Hollander on Nov. 10. “There is strong momentum to complete the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process this year.”

A budget-cap deal between Congress and the Trump administration last year already set the total for appropriations in the 2021 fiscal year at $1.298 trillion. Some $671.5 billion was already set aside for defense, with $626.5 billion for other agencies, with little prospect of renegotiating the caps.

“We’re trying, and I think if we have some leadership from both sides to let us move a bill there is a good chance we can move a bill,” Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said. He suggested if health-care spending or the border wall hold things up, it could make sense to push off those disputes to another time.

Among the elements in the bills released Nov. 9:

  • Includes $118 million for the World Health Organization, despite Trump’s move to withdraw from the group
  • Omits House Democrats’ proposed requirement that state and local governments ban chokeholds and no-knock drug warrants to get police funding
  • Continues a ban in State Department funding for international groups that provide abortion referrals
  • Requires two business days’ advance notice for lawmaker visits to facilities housing unaccompanied children who crossed the border. House Democrats’ bill has no prior notice required

Legislative History

The Senate Appropriations Committee was not able to vote on any of the 12 annual bills this year, and plans to take the drafts released this week directly into closed-door talks with House Democrats.

House Democrats voted on all 12 of their spending bills in committee over the summer and passed 10 of them in two packages on the floor. No Republicans voted in favor of either one, and the White House threatened vetoes of both.

Emergency funds for the coronavirus response, measures on racial disparities in policing, and the long-standing disputes over border wall funding and other immigration issues were among the most controversial debates.

House Democrats’ bills included $247.4 billion in emergency spending on the virus and a boost to veterans’ health funds.

Homeland Security funding continues to be a challenge. House Democrats didn’t include any border wall funds in their bill. They also inserted measures to block Trump administration policies that proposed major changes to the asylum review process and required some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending.

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