Congressional negotiators are moving quickly to try to finalize work on a sprawling package to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, though sticking points remain.
Lawmakers have roughly three weeks to finish crafting - and ideally pass - a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30, after advancing the latest stopgap last week.
That bill, which extends funding through March 11, marked the third time Congress has had to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded in the 2022 fiscal year. And while leaders have struggled to reach a broader, bipartisan agreement, negotiators are hopeful it'll be the last short-term fix.
"Oh god, no," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week when asked about the prospect of a fourth funding Band-Aid. "Good lord, no."
Until just weeks ago, negotiators struggled to find their way out of a months-long stalemate over top-line numbers, how to divide funds and legislative riders dealing with thorny issues like abortion.
And while negotiators have made strides in recent weeks after top leaders announced a bipartisan framework deal for an omnibus package, which would fund the government through September, appropriators have made clear there is still much more work to be done.
Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill that if negotiators continue to work in bipartisan fashion, Congress could finally put a bow on the package by early March. But nothing is final, he noted, until the legislation "is sealed and signed."
A new omnibus package would afford the Democratic-led Congress and President Biden a major chance to shape government funding for the current fiscal year. Under the continuing resolution passed on Thursday, funding levels are still set at those previously enacted under the Trump administration.
Democrats have already outlined their wants for a number of party-backed priorities in the annual spending legislation, including for boosts in education, efforts aimed at combating climate change, improving health care and affordable housing. And while Republicans aren't on board with all their colleagues' wish-list items, they are pushing for more funding in areas like defense.
Leahy said in remarks on Thursday that the agreed-upon framework for the omnibus package would include the "biggest increase in nondefense programs" seen in four years. But it remains to be seen what funding will look like for those programs, as leaders continue to keep spending details close to the vest amid ongoing negotiations.
Pressed about Leahy's comments shortly after, Shelby told reporters last week "that's the Democrat agenda," while adding Republicans are focused on national security.
"But, in anything bipartisan trying to get a bill through, we're gonna have to give and get, to get," he added.
Last summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that Republicans would block appropriations legislation for fiscal 2022, which began in October, in absence of a larger bipartisan spending deal in the 50-50 Senate. But to strike a deal, he has said there would need to be parity in growth in defense and nondefense spending.
In a show of progress, senators confirmed last week that all 12 subcommittees had received new top-line spending numbers for fiscal 2022, allowing each of the panels to make more headway on their slices of an omnibus package.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, wouldn't tell reporters what his panel was allocated, but said "it's better than [he] expected."
"We were very happy," he told The Hill, before adding that he believes his panel is on track to complete its work by the newly set March deadline.
Some panels will have an easier time than others in finalizing their portions in the weeks ahead.
While some have said Veterans Affairs has been a sticking point in talks, Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), ranking Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, said his panel has "pretty much got all those things moving in the right direction."
"We really enjoy working with Senator [Martin] Heinrich (D-N.M.) and his staff, and then also our counterparts over in the House. Our staffs have worked together for a while and so it makes things a lot easier," Boozman told The Hill, while adding, at this point, there aren't many "major" hurdles for them to hash out in the weeks ahead.
But some subcommittees seem to have their work cut out for them.
On the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, both Chairman Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) say they're still working toward trying to reach common ground on issues like border wall funding.
"We're on a tight timeline. We've had a lot of conversations, both Murphy and I have, and so you know we're working in good faith. It's a tough one, it might be the toughest," Capito told The Hill on Thursday.
At the same time, top negotiators are fielding more questions about supplemental COVID-19 funds amid reports the Biden administration is eyeing billions more in funds for vaccine and testing efforts, among others.
But it's unclear if the expected spending omnibus will include such funding, which has been met with hesitancy from some, particularly after it took months for appropriators to make significant progress on the annual legislation in an evenly-split Senate.
"I'm not eager to add anything. It has taken several months of negotiations to get where we are, and I'm very reluctant to reopen it for anything else," Leahy told reporters.