WASHINGTON — The White House clashed Wednesday with Democratic congressional leaders over the terms of a broad spending agreement to head off deep cuts across the government and a default on the federal debt, plunging the talks deeper into stalemate as a series of pivotal deadlines loom.
Even as the House approved a package of four spending bills in an opening bid to keep parts of the government funded, the burst of productivity stood in stark contrast to the tenor of the wider negotiations, which are hung up over how much to increase domestic spending.
Administration officials have negotiated privately with congressional leaders to strike a two-year fiscal deal that would take the prospect of government shutdowns or defaults on the debt off the table until after the 2020 elections. The deal would raise spending levels and the government’s statutory borrowing limit, known as the debt ceiling.
Emerging from a tense closed-door meeting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in the Capitol, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that there had been no compromise, and that if the logjam continued, the White House would seek a shorter-term deal that would keep spending at current levels for a year and raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit to stave off a cataclysmic breach of the debt ceiling.
“The president has every intention of keeping the government open and keeping the soundness of the full faith and credit of the government,” Mnuchin said.
Still, there was no indication that Democrats would embrace such an approach. Pelosi has said that the debt ceiling must be raised, but that a spending deal should be reached before Congress does so. On Wednesday, she and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, signaled that they would continue to press for more domestic spending as part of any agreement.
“Meeting the needs of the American people must always be a guiding principle in these negotiations as Democrats continue to insist that we adequately invest in critical domestic priorities,” they said in a joint statement.
They also suggested that if President Donald Trump allowed the congressional spending committees to do their work without injecting his brand of partisan bitterness and unpredictability into the talks, a larger fiscal deal was still possible.
“When left to their own devices, House and Senate appropriators, Democrats and Republicans working together, can get the job done,” they said.
The talks are proceeding months after a 35-day shutdown over the winter instigated by Trump, who had refused to sign any spending measure that did not fund a border wall.
The latest round of negotiations has been complicated by an apparent disconnect among Republicans both inside the White House and on Capitol Hill about what kind of deal to pursue. While Mnuchin declined to describe the direction of the talks, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff who is an ardent fiscal hawk, accused Democrats of increasing their domestic spending demands rather than moving in the administration’s direction.
“Last time I checked,” he said, “that’s not how you compromise.”
Senior Democratic officials said they had offered no new proposals on spending levels during the session, but had noted that the House had written and begun passing its appropriations bills, which added up to $647 billion in domestic spending.
The first package of those bills, approved Wednesday, outlines funding for the Defense, Education and State departments, and other federal agencies, totaling about 75% of the government. It serves as a statement of policy priorities by a Democratic majority that has struggled to move any of its marquee initiatives beyond the doorstep of the Republican-controlled Senate. A number of the provisions directly contradict policies pursued by the Trump administration.
Nestled in the nearly $983 billion spending package are provisions that would prevent the Pentagon from using funds to enforce a ban against transgender service members, prevent the State Department from spending money at Trump properties, stop funding from being used on arms sales without congressional approval, and prohibit restrictions on fetal tissue research.
It also repeals the authorization of military force passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which granted Congress’ blessing to use military force only against nations, groups or individuals responsible for the attacks, and has been invoked for a wide array of military operations since, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Passage of the provision is the culmination of a yearslong debate over whether to curtail the president’s war powers that has heated up in recent months.
But before lawmakers can begin to negotiate on that issue or any of the 12 spending bills to fund the government into 2020, the White House and congressional leaders must reach the broader spending agreement to prevent strict spending cuts, known as the sequester, from taking effect across every government program.
Back-to-back budget deals that have held off the automatic cuts, first established in 2011, from taking effect will expire around October, when fiscal analysts predict that the Treasury could run out of room to borrow money. That could lead to an economic catastrophe, damaging the stability of the United States economy and forcing the government to default on its debt.
Administration officials, including Mnuchin, Mulvaney and Russell T. Vought, the acting chief of the Office of Management and Budget, have met with congressional leaders from both chambers, as well as the heads of the appropriations committees, to negotiate a possible deal.
But Wednesday’s session illustrated the obstacles blocking agreement, and the extent to which the principal negotiators are talking past one another. Mnuchin said the White House, “in an effort of compromise,” had agreed to take the threat of the sequester “off the table.” But to avoid the devastating cuts, Congress would have to enact some sort of spending legislation by January, which would require the acquiescence of Democrats and of appropriators who jealously guard their prerogatives to allocate spending.
Schumer said that a one-year spending bill would be “bad policy.”
“It’s bad politics, and it’s a fallback,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We should be negotiating the bill.”
Similarly, the administration officials claimed they had reached a breakthrough with Pelosi on the debt ceiling in which she had agreed that it would be raised regardless of whether the two sides could come to a broader spending agreement.
“The good news is everybody in the room agreed that we will not hold the debt ceiling subject or hostage to spending,” Mnuchin said. But a senior Democratic official said Pelosi has not changed her position that a spending deal should be reached before the debt limit is increased.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to formally consider any appropriations bills, reluctant to proceed without a bicameral agreement on how much to raise the spending limits.
“We’re not there yet,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the committee chairman, said after Wednesday’s meeting. “We had good discussions, very candid.”
To keep the government funded past the end of the 2019 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, lawmakers need to pass the 12 spending bills and secure Trump’s signature before the beginning of October. And while most of the parties involved in the closed-door negotiations are eager to avoid fiscal calamity, the president has proved to be a wild card willing to wield the threat of government shutdowns, debt default and dire cuts.
As the congressional calendar stands, lawmakers have about 31 remaining days of joint session in Washington before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, when the government would shut down without any action on legislation that would lift the spending limitations and fund federal departments and agencies.
The Senate Appropriations Committee held its first markup, as the work of a committee on legislation is known, of the 116th Congress on Wednesday, just more than three months before the government will run out of funding, to approve supplemental funding for the southwestern border.
Speaking at the hearing, Shelby warned that the committee lawmakers needed to coalesce around an agreement to keep so-called poison pills out of the spending bills moving forward.
“If we show that critical mass is still behind this simple and proven framework, we can move bills quickly,” he said. “If we start chipping away at it, I fear we will return to the old frustrations and failures of previous years.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.