Top lawmakers are still grasping for the deal they need to tee up a sprawling year-end spending package as potential pitfalls for the bill pile up, nearly guaranteeing that Congress will be working until Christmas or later to fund the government.
Democrats and Republicans leading the negotiations are still tens of billions of dollars apart on a total amount for domestic programs, preventing lawmakers from cementing an agreement on the overall funding levels necessary to smooth out the finer points. Without a deal, congressional leaders have warned that federal agencies could be saddled with stagnant budgets for the better part of 2023, an outcome that Pentagon leaders have said would be devastating for military readiness and U.S. assistance to Ukraine.
To that end, the Biden administration sent lawmakers a list of funding exceptions on Monday night that will be needed to lessen the pain of stagnant budgets if a deal falls through and Congress passes a so-called continuing resolution instead.
Federal cash expires on Dec. 16, meaning lawmakers will almost certainly need to pass a stopgap spending patch that buys them an extra week or more to finalize any funding package for the current fiscal year. The bill could top $1.7 trillion, in line with President Joe Biden's budget request, and include a swath of other policy provisions - such as a bipartisan update to presidential certification law crafted in response to the Capitol riot - as members look to pack in their priorities before the next Congress starts.
At the moment, Democrats are asking for about $25 billion more in veterans health funding than GOP lawmakers are willing to give. Republicans have deemed that money unnecessary, arguing that Democrats largely achieved their domestic funding goals through party-line climate, tax, health and Covid aid bills.
The increasingly expensive veterans health funding matter has proven a major sticking point for both sides. Democrats have argued that it should be moved out of domestic spending and into its own separate category, so that it doesn't consume other priorities.
"Chair DeLauro does not believe that honoring our commitment to veterans is 'unnecessary spending,'" said Katelynn Thorpe, a spokesperson for House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
"Given the recent comments by House Republicans, the lay of the land is we need a bill that can garner support from all House Democrats and 10 Senate Republicans and receive the President's signature," Thorpe said.
The current spending impasse is significant enough to see a spillover effect in talks on a must-pass defense policy bill, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell throwing cold water on Democratic interest in adding energy permitting or marijuana banking provisions to that measure.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was noncommittal when asked if the two parties could reach an agreement on the spending package by next week: "We certainly hope so," he said in a brief interview, "but I don't know."
"It's absurd that we can't get there on toplines," Hoyer added, noting that a one-year stopgap spending patch is still on the table.
"I think we have a good chance to work this out before we leave here later this month," he said. "There will be more of a sense of urgency as the days tick away. There always is."
Settling for a so-called continuing resolution that would keep the government funded at current levels for the rest of the fiscal year is hardly the note that the Senate's two top appropriators - Shelby and Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy - want to strike as they retire from Congress.
Schumer said Tuesday that "negotiations continue" on the government funding package, adding that "both sides must remain at the table and continue working."
Should top Democrats attempt to add Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) energy-permitting language to either the defense policy bill or the spending legislation, they're likely to encounter resistance from their own left flank as well as from McConnell's party.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that the group is starting to survey its members on the Manchin-backed permitting language and found that "a lot of people might not be willing to support the rule" on the House floor if it were added to either bill.
"We're about to run out of runway here, though I still think there's a great chance we'll get this done," retiring Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a senior Republican appropriator, said on Monday night.
"Even in the Senate, where things happen in a hurry," Blunt said, warning that an agreement on overall funding totals needs to be reached soon to keep lawmakers on a reasonable track to finish before the end of the year. "Reading and doing all the things you have to do together before you're happy to take that bill to the floor just takes time."
Sarah Ferris and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.