Congressional leaders in both parties are confident they can reach a deal to stave off a funding fiasco this fall — if only President Donald Trump would stay out of the way.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top lawmakers will huddle with White House budget negotiators Wednesday. It’s the first time in nearly a month Democrats and Republicans will meet, after Trump detonated the discussions over a dispute with Pelosi.
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Trump has already put a damper on the latest round of talks by dangling the threat of mass deportation raids targeting undocumented immigrants, a nonstarter for Democrats. Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as any action that follows, could imperil a bipartisan effort to funnel billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the border, a bad omen for reaching a broader budget deal, according to top lawmakers.
“Trump is the only one who could blow this up,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I think we could easily get a deal between the four caucuses.”
Republicans agree with the second point, even as they approach Trump gingerly.
“We’re closer than we’ve been. Ever. It’s positive. The atmosphere is good,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “But we have to have the president on board. Otherwise he’ll just veto it.”
At the center of the negotiations is an effort to lift stiff budget caps, avoid a shutdown and potentially raise the debt ceiling — actions that if untaken this year could wreak havoc on the U.S. economy.
Negotiators also are trying to reach a deal to send $4.5 billion in aid to address the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, an effort Trump has again put in jeopardy with his latest saber rattling.
Pelosi called Trump’s latest warning of deportation raids “an act of utter malice and bigotry” but later said she and other congressional leaders are forging ahead with the budget negotiations.
“We’re talking about the caps and parity in those talks and lifting the debt ceiling, which of course we must do,” Pelosi said Tuesday.
Senate Democratic appropriators reached an agreement with Shelby to provide $4.6 billion in humanitarian and security assistance at the border, according to sources familiar with the agreement — a key Trump ask. But Democrats said Trump hasn’t made it easy, and there’s still no sign off from the House Democratic majority.
“Whatever the president tweets, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle listen to him and they follow his lead. So more than once now we’ve almost had a deal on many different things and issues and he’ll go tweet something different and everything grinds to a halt,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said. “He knows the effect of what he’s doing.”
Top lawmakers were on the cusp of a two-year, broad budget agreement last month only to have Trump send the talks off the rails when he stormed out of an infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Trump was enraged Pelosi said he was engaging in a “cover-up” related to the Russia probe and vowed not to negotiate with Democrats until they cease all their oversight and investigations.
But without a bipartisan deal, $126 billion in blunt budget cuts would hit both defense and domestic programs in January.
So acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting Budget Director Russ Vought will try again when they sit down with Pelosi, McConnell, Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Appropriators from both sides of the Capitol will also join.
Shelby visited with Trump earlier this month and showed him charts showing the potential for $71 billion in cuts from the defense budget without action. The president “indicated he understood that and wants to keep working,” Shelby said. Shortly after, Senate Republicans met with Trump administration officials and decided they needed to bring in Pelosi.
Shelby called Pelosi on Friday, then continued negotiations with Schumer and Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
Both Democrats and Republicans are already wary of negotiating with Mulvaney — a veteran of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — and Vought, who are advocating internally to stand strong against Democrats’ demands for more domestic spending. And Trump’s latest tweets aren’t helping the outlook on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve said this all along — it’s more strong now than ever — if President Trump stays out of it, we can come to a good budget agreement,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday.
Top Democrats and Republicans agree it is in their mutual interest, and Trump’s, to avert a government shutdown this fall. And lawmakers in both parties worry the time to avoid a fall “meltdown,” as Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) put it, is running out.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest to deal with these issues, both the caps and the debt limit,” Thune said. “Our guys are going to have to be flexible going in; the president is going to have to be flexible.”
Senate Democrats discussed the emergency border package on Tuesday beforethe Appropriations Committee’s consideration of the spending measure, and there seemed to be agreement that the cleaner the bill, the better. Otherwise the legislation could fail on the Senate floor.
“I recognize that there’s a humanitarian crisis at the border that we should be working in a bipartisan way to address,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “The concerns that I and many of my colleagues have expressed from my caucus are what policy changes the majority might try to make.”
House Democrats are still working to craft their own version of the supplemental spending bill. But Trump’s latest threats are only going to alienate progressive and Hispanic lawmakers who are already wary of giving the administration any more funds for federal immigration programs.
“The president is totally unpredictable,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. “Even if we can get agreement with the Senate, there’s no predicting what the president would do.”
Congress is also running out of time.
Lawmakers hope to send a border package to Trump’s desk in the next few weeks before the administration’s money runs out. And Republicans working on budget negotiations said they need a bipartisan deal by August to sort out raising the debt limit and overall spending levels. Already they are behind last year’s schedule, and that ended in a 35-day shutdown.
“Sooner or later it’s got to end,” Shelby said. “I hope it ends in a good way.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.