Congress barrels toward another stopgap as leaders tout ‘productive’ White House meeting

by Braxton Taylor

Congressional negotiators are getting closer to avoiding a partial shutdown later this week, with leaders suggesting all sides have agreed on the need for a deal and few obstacles stand in the way of reaching one. 

Top lawmakers coming out of a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Tuesday expressed cautious optimism, though they conceded they will have to buy themselves more time.

Funding for some agencies is set to expire later this week and Congress has not yet set a specific path for keeping them afloat. Congressional leaders are finalizing funding bills for the remainder of fiscal 2024, but acknowledged another continuing resolution will be necessary. 

Congress is looking to quickly pass regular appropriations measures for the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, which are facing the March 1 deadline, though a short CR may be necessary to do so. The remaining agencies, which comprise the bulk of annual spending, are facing a March 8 deadline and lawmakers suggested a stopgap bill would be required to allow for final negotiations over how to fund them. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting was “productive and intense,” but the government funding portions of the talks were the most fruitful. He stressed that House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said “unequivocally” that he would like to avoid a shutdown. 

“We are making good progress,” Schumer said, calling Johnson’s comments “very heartening.” He added he was hopeful a deal could come together “very quickly.” 

Schumer said he told Johnson to avoid a shutdown Congress would need to pass CRs, though he declined to say how the speaker responded. Johnson similarly said he thought a shutdown could be avoided, but did not address the necessity of a CR. 

“We’re very optimistic,” the speaker said. “We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and avoid a government shutdown.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said few sticking points remained on the first tranche of spending bills, but more time would be needed for the remaining eight. Lawmakers said the talks turned particularly intense when discussing additional funding to aid Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

After the meeting, the White House said Biden stressed funding bills must be bipartisan and avoid “extreme policies.” 

“The president made clear that Congress must take swift action to fund the government and prevent a shutdown,” the White House said. “A shutdown is unacceptable and would cause needless damage to hardworking families, our economy and our national security.”

Ahead of the White House summit, lawmakers in both parties were resigned to passing a fourth set of short-term bills this fiscal year. 

“We don’t have time now at this point,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggesting lawmakers now have no other choice but to approve a CR. “At the end of the day, if the choice comes down to continuing resolution and shutdown, I’d prefer a continuing resolution to a shutdown.”

Schumer told reporters he warned Speaker Johnson not to empower the most conservative members of his caucus. The House Freedom Caucus has demanded House Johnson secure either conservative policy victories in the spending bill or pass a full-year continuing resolution that would result in significant cuts for domestic agencies.

“If he’s going to let a hard-right group of people in his caucus dictate, who want a shutdown, we won’t succeed,” Schumer said. 

While negotiators appeared optimistic they could agree to full-year funding bills relatively quickly, any delays that require additional or longer CRs could have significant impacts. Under a provision of the 2023 debt ceiling law, a CR that goes into May would force devastating, across-the-board cuts that would likely require employee furloughs and significant disruptions to agency operations. Already, several agencies have implemented policies to adapt to budget shortfalls.

Congressional leaders have agreed to a top-line spending level of $1.66 trillion for fiscal 2024, with defense spending jumping 3% to $886 billion and non-defense spending staying essentially flat relative to fiscal 2023 at nearly $773 billion. While the allocations for each of the 12 spending bills lawmakers must pass each year are set, negotiators are still finalizing which policy riders to include.

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