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Congress plots another shutdown fallback

Congressional leaders began contingency planning Thursday for another short-term funding patch, with no breakthrough on a sweeping bipartisan spending deal and just over two weeks until federal cash runs out.

Top appropriators have batted around offers all week, racing to lock in the two spending totals for the Pentagon and non-defense programs. But even if they reach an overall deal in their ongoing meetings, it could take weeks to fine tune the details of the 12 bills that go into a catchall funding package.

So Democratic leaders have started a now-familiar song and dance: preparing to pass a continuing resolution to punt the funding deadline for a few more days or weeks, to avoid the risk of a government shutdown come midnight on Feb. 18. Congress has already passed two of those funding patches since the new fiscal year started in October.

The House could vote as early as next week on a short-term stopgap, according to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who chairs the panel that writes the Transportation-HUD piece of the funding package.

While that timeline would mostly protect the House’s previously scheduled two-week break in floor action, it could prematurely alleviate pressure in the cross-party negotiations toward a grand compromise — potentially further impeding Democrats’ goal to pass a bill with new funding levels for the first time during Joe Biden’s presidency.

“Getting the number is one thing,” Price said, acknowledging that it typically takes several more weeks for a funding package to be completely negotiated once the two overarching totals are set.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), his party’s top Senate appropriator, said late Wednesday that negotiators were still working to come to agreements on defense funding and policy “riders” — controversial spending stipulations like the Hyde amendment ban on funding abortion.

“We’re not there yet,” Shelby said. “Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the spending panel that funds the military, said his bill “could be done very quickly” once the parties reach an accord on total spending for Pentagon and non-defense programs. But time is running out, he added.

“We’ve got to get a top line very very soon, because right now — just to get the damn thing written — we might need a week [long] CR,” said Tester, using shorthand for a stopgap spending bill. “So the top line needs to happen yesterday.”

If the parties can come to an agreement, House Democratic leaders are expected to need the vast majority of their 222 lawmakers to vote in support of the package — a tough sell for progressives who oppose increasing Pentagon funding. But Tester predicted House Democrats would fall in line with whatever funding deal could pass the upper chamber.

“Four people — Leahy, Shelby, McConnell, Schumer — that’s how it gets locked down,” Tester said, suggesting only Shelby, Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer need to approve the deal.

“I dunno about the House. If we get this done here, I think the House will go with us — I really do,” Tester said.

Any final funding package the leaders might shake out is expected to include the hundreds of billions of dollars in earmarks House Democrats approved last summer. They revived the controversial practice of allowing lawmakers to request funding for specific projects, rather than leaving those decisions solely to the federal agencies that manage the cash.

All earmark requests are now posted online, an attempt to prevent the kind of corruption that landed lawmakers in jail because of earmark kickbacks more than a decade ago. Other new rules include preventing funds from going to for-profit recipients, and lawmakers and their immediate families can’t have a financial stake in the projects.

House Republicans voted in a secret ballot last summer to go along with Democrats’ earmarks revival. In the Senate, Republicans adopted a nonbinding ban on earmarks in 2010, but several GOP senators publicly favor the practice, while many others won’t commit to forgoing earmark requests.

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