Top Lawmakers to Meet With White House Officials to Tackle Spending Talks

Congressional leaders and senior White House officials will restart negotiations Wednesday afternoon to iron out differences over spending on the Pentagon and other government agencies, with lawmakers hoping to avoid a further series of short-term patches.

Congress ran out of time last year to tackle the spending fight, instead opting to keep the government open with a stop-gap spending bill and pushing the debate into the new year. Lawmakers returning to Washington have just three weeks before that current spending measure expires on Jan. 19.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) will host a meeting Wednesday afternoon with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). They will be joined by Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney as they resume discussions over how to boost federal spending above the lower levels that will kick in unless Congress intervenes.

"Marc Short and Mick Mulvaney look forward to meeting on the Hill tomorrow to discuss budget caps with congressional leaders," Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

Democrats said they may bring up additional pressing issues as well, such as immigration policy and children's health care.

Aides to the top congressional leaders have been meeting with White House staff including Mr. Short for weeks, but GOP leaders were focused on passing the tax overhaul, which squeaked through both chambers late last month. Now with the tax bill out of the way, aides said they were optimistic lawmakers could get closer to striking a budget deal, though sticking points remain.

Both parties want to increase spending for the military, but Democrats want to see that matched with an equal increase for nonmilitary spending, a concept they call "parity" in spending.

"In these talks, Leader Schumer and I will continue to insist on parity in the caps," Mrs. Pelosi said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues sent Tuesday. "We are fighting for funding for the opioid epidemic, veterans, pensions, disaster relief, National Institutes of Health, Children's Health Insurance Program and community health centers."

As part of a bruising fight over raising the government's borrowing limit in 2011, Congress set spending limits aimed at lowering federal spending over time, though lawmakers in the interim have passed multiyear deals to prevent the caps from kicking in. In fiscal year 2018, the so-called sequester would shave off $54 billion from military spending and $37 billion from nondefense spending, unless lawmakers pass legislation to avoid the cuts.

Democrats want nonmilitary spending to receive the same boost as military spending -- potentially $54 billion in each category though they aren't wedded to a specific sum, aides said. Republicans are seeking an increase in nondefense spending closer to $37 billion. They see that figure as providing comparable relief from the sequester.

The tenor of Wednesday's meeting is likely to shape how long it will take for congressional leaders to reach a budget deal with the White House. Once an agreement has been struck, lawmakers on the appropriations committees will need some time to write the detailed spending bill funding the government through the rest of the fiscal year, which runs through September.

A brief spending patch might be needed before Jan. 19 to give lawmakers time to write the full-year bill, known as an omnibus, though aides said there is mounting pressure from the Defense Department to stop funding the government in short-term increments. In a letter sent to lawmakers in September, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the military's readiness is harmed by short-term spending bills and urged Congress to pass legislation averting the sequester.

Democratic votes will be needed to pass the spending bill in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles. Once senator-elect Doug Jones (D., Ala.) is sworn in Wednesday, Republicans will hold a slim 51-49 majority. In the House, Democratic votes are likely to be needed as well, since Republican deficit hawks may balk at the higher spending levels.

Democrats intend to use their leverage in the spending negotiations to push for passing legal protections for the so-called Dreamers, young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children. President Donald Trump in September ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA that shielded them from deportation, but gave Congress six months to pass legislation before protections begin to expire.

A bipartisan group of senators has been working with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in the hopes of drafting an immigration bill that would couple protections for Dreamers with heightened border security. Democrats aren't likely to support a spending bill if an immigration deal hasn't passed, although GOP leaders have said they want to keep the two issues separate.

Republicans are likely to press for other measures, potentially to address what the Trump administration calls "chain migration," or the ability of citizens to sponsor family members for green cards, but it isn't clear if that could secure bipartisan support.

GOP leaders have said they want to consider any immigration legislation separately from the spending bill. Lawmakers often tuck other contentious issues into spending bills, one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation in an election year.

Congress is also scrambling to figure out how to pay for a long-term reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, agree on a package of disaster-relief aid for states and territories hit by last year's storms and extend a controversial surveillance law.

--Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 03, 2018 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)