Congress has left town for the holidays, but lawmakers have made scant progress on crucial spending deadlines that will hit soon after they return in early January.
Lawmakers are feuding over the level of overall spending that determines the amount appropriators can dole out in each of the dozen spending bills needed to fund the federal government.
Congress previously agreed on $1.59 trillion as the topline number, but appropriators in the House and Senate have viewed that agreement differently. House Republicans want to spend up to the cap, while Senate Democrats are pushing to spend at, or slightly above, the limit.
Veteran Republican appropriators in the House say their hands are tied on negotiating their bills, or even passing them, until congressional leadership can produce a common number. Many hoped that Speaker Mike Johnson would have reached a final number before lawmakers departed Washington.
“We’ve told him repeatedly, ‘We’ve gotta have a number,’” said Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho Republican. “I can’t negotiate a bill in the Senate if they’re spending $5 billion more than I have in my bill.”
The holiday break comes at a crucial moment for Congress. The first of two spending deadlines set by Mr. Johnson, Louisiana Republican, for early next year is fast approaching. If Congress misses the Jan. 19 deadline, a partial shutdown could hit a handful of government agencies.
The House has struggled to pass its remaining spending bills since avoiding the first shutdown cliff in September over issues with policy provisions. Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, said that in the end, there will have to be bipartisan deals to move forward.
“Most of the people that are complaining about what we did or did not do with appropriations bills aren’t going to be part of that anyway, they’re not going to be voting for the bill,” Mr. Cole said. “There’s no way we can get it to where they want to go and be able to attract the Democratic support that you need.”
Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden hammered out the spending cap as part of the debt-ceiling deal in May.
That cap set spending at $886 billion for defense and $704 billion for non-defense programs. The agreement also included roughly $69 billion through a side deal to bolster the non-defense spending side, bringing the total to about $1.65 trillion.
“The extreme MAGA Republicans remain on an island trying to break the agreement that they themselves negotiated,” said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat. “It’s a non-starter. It’s not happening. And if extreme MAGA Republicans continue to refuse to keep the agreement related to the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act, they are marching America to a government shutdown.”
Adding to the deadline pressure is Mr. Johnson’s promise to not pass another short-term spending bill. Instead, he has floated a year-long spending measure that would trigger a 1% cut in overall spending — a move lawmakers have said is more likely than a shutdown, but would come with its own consequences.
“The [proposal] is really bad news, it’s bad news for governance, it sends a bad signal to our adversaries overseas, and it’s gonna be a big cut in defense,” Mr. Cole said.
But some lawmakers, including members of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, don’t view a year-long spending punt as a bad thing.
Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, told The Washington Times that while he is comfortable with $1.59 trillion as the overall number — minus the billions in additional spending — and wants actual conservative policy wins in spending bills, a yearlong spending measure was not a bad option because it would force spending cuts.
“I’m good at that, that gets you kind of closer to, not quite, but probably closer to pre-COVID levels,” Mr. Roy said.