Congress returns to Washington this week with a challenging to-do list for December that not only includes drafting articles of impeachment and finalizing a massive trade deal, but also funding the government.
Appropriators and congressional leadership have just three weeks to resolve dozens of policy disputes between House and Senate spending bills — a daunting but routine exercise that will determine whether there’s a partial government shutdown right as lawmakers are set to leave for their winter break.
In a significant step forward, the Democratic House and Republican Senate reached agreement following months of rocky discussions on how to divide $1.37 trillion among the 12 annual funding bills for fiscal 2020, which began Oct. 1.
Achieving consensus on these spending allocations, known as 302(b)s, however, was only one step in a rather arduous process.
Subcommittee chairmen and ranking members now need to work out how much of their allocation goes to the various agencies funded in the bills and resolve some of the most polarizing issues facing the country, including the border wall, family planning grants and gun violence research.
For now, appropriators are hopeful they can get much of their work done before the stopgap spending bill expires Dec. 20 at midnight. But three weeks is not a lot of time to resolve all the differences, leaving open the possibility that some bills get resolved while others face yet another continuing resolution. Another partial government shutdown also cannot be ruled out.
“We’ve got our job cut out for us,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
For fiscal 2020, the Trump administration asked Congress to appropriate $8.6 billion for border wall construction, including $5 billion for the Homeland Security Department. House Democrats countered with $0 in their $65.7 billion Homeland Security spending bill. Senate Republicans added the full $5 billion to their $70.7 billion bill, but the final allocation both sides have to work with is less than the Senate topline.
“It’s going to be difficult for us in Homeland, because we are allocated fewer dollars than we wrote our original bill to, and I think that’s going to present some challenges,” Capito, R-W.Va., said.
With the 2020 elections less than a year away, this could be the last full-year spending bill President Donald Trump gets before he faces voters in his bid for reelection. And with just 78 miles of border wall constructed along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border during his time in office _ all of which replaced existing structures _ there will likely be a campaign push to focus more on the amount of money dedicated to the project and less on miles completed.
Outside of resolving border wall funding, Capito said determining how many people Immigration and Customs Enforcement can detain will continue to be a “perennial sticking point.”
The Senate bill would boost detention bed capacity by about 6,800 people to just over 52,000 beds, while the House bill would appropriate $2.68 billion for about 34,000 people with an additional $387 million to detain migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even though there’s a lot of pressure to resolve the key issues and reach bipartisan agreement on the Homeland Security spending bill, Capito said she doesn’t expect it to be in the first package of measures sent to the president’s desk.
It’s too early to say whether Congress will need to pass another short-term spending measure for the agencies funded within the bill, she said. But if another continuing resolution is needed, leadership would determine length based on the unresolved issues and timing of the impeachment process, Capito said.