Top congressional leaders from both parties will meet with senior White House officials this week as the Trump administration and Congress try once again to reach a deal to avoid tens of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts this fall, according to congressional and administration officials.
Yet both sides acknowledge they’re not close to an agreement at this point, with even Senate Republicans and the White House unable to fully hash out a common position among themselves.
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The federal government’s debt ceiling will also need to be increased later this year in order to avoid a catastrophic default, foreshadowing how ugly this fall may get in Washington.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will huddle with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought sometime this week, three sources said.
The bipartisan group met last month and reported surprising progress, only to see President Donald Trump — furious over a Pelosi accusation that he was involved in a “cover-up” of Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential race — angrily walk out a White House meeting May 22 with Democrats.
Since that time, McConnell and McCarthy — eager to avoid $125 billion in mandatory spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic spending unless a deal is reached to boost those limits — have quietly tried to get the negotiations back on track, as have Democratic leaders.
Yet White House officials remain skeptical that Democrats, who want to increase domestic spending despite a rapidly rising deficit, will agree to any proposed deal, no matter what Republicans put on the table.
“Unless Democrats show a willingness to negotiate and come off their unrealistic and unaffordable spending increases, then these meetings are just summer theater and things won’t change much,” said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Democrats, though, are equally as frustrated with Trump and the GOP leadership, noting that the president’s tax cut — his signature legislative achievement — is the reason for the growing deficit.
They also point that Trump is wildly unpredictable in any negotiations, as even Republicans know, so that they don’t trust anything administration officials say unless Trump publicly endorses it.
And Democrats remain furious about the president’s decision following this winter’s disastrous 35-day partial government shutdown — the result of a failed strategy by Trump and GOP immigration hardliners — to declare a national emergency and use billions in Pentagon funding for his border wall project. Democrats are suing Trump over the move, even as the White House has sought more than $4 billion to deal with the immigration crisis on the southern border. Pelosi and other Democrats have not acted on the White House request yet.
“We’ll see what happens,” a senior Democratic aide said. “We’ll see what [Republicans] put on the table and we’ll go from there.”
GOP congressional leaders themselves are wary of Mulvaney and Vought, two budget hawks, which is why Mnuchin is the “point man” in the negotiations, at least for now.
A meeting with the three negotiators and Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee last week focused on the budget caps number, with some discussion of the debt ceiling, although no internal deal was struck, the Republican senators said.
“What we really need to do here is have the House and the president reach an agreement and then that will give us something to work off of,” Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-La.) said following that session. “The debt limit is a part of this. The wall is part of this … I wouldn’t say there’s an agreement between Republican senators and the White House. We’re still talking.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added: “We want to see who is on board and not on board. We need to get the speaker, make sure that the speaker and Schumer and Leahy are together just like we’d be together.” Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) is the top Democrat on Appropriatons, and he and Shelby have had their own talks on raising the budget caps.
“Did we make some progress? I think so maybe. At least we have some clarity,” Shelby told reporters. “We’re basically close to the same page” with White House