With impeachment consuming Capitol Hill, there’s a slow-moving crisis that could lead to a nightmare before Christmas: the government funding mess.
Congress is just nine days from the Nov. 21 spending deadline, with party leaders desperate to avoid a paralyzing shutdown just as Democrats take their most serious steps toward impeaching President Donald Trump.
For now, top lawmakers are attempting to cobble together a short-term fix to keep the government open for a few more weeks — essentially limping along through the end of the ultimate confrontation between Trump and congressional Democrats.
Party leaders insist they’re just a month away from a funding deal, with plans to punt the deadline until Dec. 20, just five days before Christmas. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have asserted that they will not let government funding lapse.
But a toxic set of circumstances — the threat of impeachment along with a woefully delayed appropriations process — could wind up with Congress lurching into a shutdown after all.
“In a rational world, this would be relatively easy to get accomplished,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said in an interview. “But with this president, there’s no way to predict what he’s going to do.”
Six weeks into the fiscal year, top Republicans and Democrats still have no game plan on how to reach an agreement. The two parties can’t even agree on how to carve up the budget — basic details that are typically finalized in the early weeks of the process.
And there is no decision on what to do about Trump’s border wall demands — the precise issue that has plagued Congress throughout his presidency and led to the longest shutdown in U.S. history — just as Democrats launch public impeachment hearings this week.
Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on House Appropriations Committee, dismissed the prospect of impeachment complicating the spending process.
“I think it’s irrelevant, frankly,” Lowey said. “I have my work to do, the chairman has his work to do and we’re continuing our work at appropriators.”
Still, other Democratic lawmakers and aides say they can't rule out a Trump tantrum during impeachment. And some Democrats are already speculating that the House could end up voting to impeach Trump in the same week, if not the same day, as the vote to fund the government.
“I have no idea what he has on his mind,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a senior appropriator about the possibility that Trump could shut down the government over impeachment. Then he quipped “Trump, act as a petulant child? I can’t imagine.”
Senior appropriators met Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to salvage talks that had all but ground to a halt ahead of the November deadline.
Lowey and Senate Appropriations chief Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) agreed there would be a stopgap funding bill through Dec. 20, though no long-term decisions were made.
Shelby said he discussed spending bills with Trump during the Alabama-LSU football game Saturday, including border wall funding, but added that they “didn’t get into a lot of details.”
The Alabama Republican described Tuesday's meeting as "serious," adding: “We instructed our top staff to get serious on two or three items and see where we go from there, see where we are and then see where the president is.”
But Shelby also warned that the ongoing impeachment inquiry “could have an impact.”
“I always thought it would be relevant. Depends on what the House does and when they do it and what we do in the meantime,” he said. “Once the impeachment resolution comes over, it takes precedence.”
Still, there was no breakthrough Tuesday to clear a path for a bipartisan funding deal. The House does plan to vote early next week on that stopgap funding bill, which the Senate is also likely to pass.
But the biggest wild card for both parties, once again, is Trump. The president is already planning to use year-end spending negotiations in a last-ditch attempt to fund his border wall ahead of the 2020 election.
The Christmas-time deadline is intended to force speedier negotiations between the two sides as lawmakers race home for the holidays. But the same tactic failed miserably in 2019, when Trump refused to sign off on a spending deal that short-changed his border wall request. Instead, he sent the government sputtering into a 35-day shutdown.
This year, Congress is even further behind on appropriations — including the relatively mundane process of carving up each department’s budget allocation.
The Senate has passed just a sliver of their annual spending bills. The House has passed nearly all, though none of them are acceptable to the GOP-led Senate. And neither party appears willing to back down on the most contentious piece of negotiations: $5 billion for Trump’s border wall.
“My understanding is, nothing has been decided. First we have to decide on what the allocations are going to be, and we can’t even get there,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which has been at the center of Trump’s wall fight.
Still, Democrats and Republicans have been clear they will avoid a shutdown at all costs, even if no one can say if Trump will sign their legislation.
“That’s the one that we can say: Nobody wants a shutdown. That’s something that will eventually force us to come to some decision,” Roybal-Allard said.
Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this story.