Congress clinches sweeping spending deal, putting off shutdown threat

Posted at 6:17 PM, Dec 12, 2019

Top congressional negotiators clinched a "deal in principle" to fund the US government, an agreement that comes a little more than a week before the deadline and likely takes the threat of a government shutdown off the table.

The bipartisan foursome of the top appropriators reached the agreement after meeting in the Capitol on Thursday, capping a day of harried negotiations, proposals and counter proposals that will significantly curtail the threat of a government shutdown. Staff will work through the weekend to produce the final legislation, which will likely move in two separate packages that receive House floor votes on Tuesday, according to an aide.

The $1.37 trillion agreement includes all 12 spending bills and came after a day of last-minute negotiations and shuttle diplomacy between Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and his House counterpart Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, along with the two ranking members on their committees, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, and Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican. At various points meetings included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the Trump administration's point person on the negotiations.

It also came as time was running out to reach an agreement that could be moved through both the House and Senate before the December 20 funding deadline. President Donald Trump will also have to sign the measure into law and has yet to weigh in publicly, but Mnuchin and Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, were regularly apprised, and often present, during some of the final stages of the negotiations.

The tentative agreement still left some issues to ironed out over the course of the weekend, aides said, but the topline agreement and momentum to move forward before lawmakers leave town for the Christmas holiday creates a momentum that generally carries final negotiations across the finish line.

The seeds of the agreement were planted in the bipartisan budget agreement reached in July, but for months the two parties, and two chambers, failed to make significant progress on reconciling the spending measures themselves. Regular holdups, including Trump's request of billions in border wall funding and funds for immigration related matters, abortion, and recently, a parochial California dispute between Pelosi and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy plagued the talks, but several other significant issues were outstanding as recently as Thursday morning, people involved in the talks said.

The White House signaled in negotiations it would accept significantly less money -- the current level of $1.375 billion -- than requested on the border wall in exchange for maintaining the authority to transfer funds from Pentagon accounts to finance new wall construction, according to people involved in the talks. That agreement made it into the final deal, a source familiar with the talks said. The deal does not include any money backfilling the $3.6 billion in military construction funds the administration transferred earlier this year to fund the wall -- a key priority for Democrats.

The agreement was driven in large part by incentives that made a short-term agreement to freeze spending levels into 2020 increasingly untenable for key players. A continuing resolution, a backstop if talks failed, likely would've led lawmakers to lose the nearly $100 billion in additional money secured in the budget agreement. The threat of election year politics and a divisive Senate impeachment trial led aides and lawmakers to believe a sweeping agreement on all 12 bills was unlikely if negotiations slipped into 2020. Pelosi and McConnell committed to one another during a phone call last month that they would push for a final agreement on all 12 bills -- including the thorny Department of Homeland Security measure.

Over the final day of negotiations, one that started with people involved questioning whether a deal was even possible, a list of dozens of outstanding issues was narrowed down piece by piece through the various meetings. The final meeting between the "four corners" of Shelby, Lowey, Granger and Leahy secured the final agreement. It was the same group that reached the deal to end the longest government shutdown in US history -- which began one year ago this month.