The Hill

McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal

By Alexander Bolton

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invited Senate Republican colleagues to a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney Wednesday in a renewed attempt to sell the White House on a two-year spending deal.

McConnell brought in Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and several appropriations cardinals, the chairmen of powerful subcommittees, to underscore his argument that a two-year deal on spending caps is essential to avoiding big cuts to defense spending at year’s end. 

Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Interior subcommittee, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), chairwoman of the Legislative Branch subcommittee, John Boozman (R-Ark.), chairman of the Military Construction subcommittee, and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee, also attended the meeting.

A Senate Republican lawmaker with knowledge of the agenda said the purpose of the meeting was to sell the White House on accepting a two-year spending caps deal with Democrats.

The source said that Shelby and Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, have sketched out a possible rough deal.

Shelby told reporters after the meeting that Mnuchin and Mulvaney will bring a proposal back to President Trump to review. He also said Senate Republicans will pass along a new Republican offer to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We will be meeting again,” Shelby said. “We discussed things in pretty good detail.”

“Did we crystalize it? No. We didn’t think we’d crystalize it today, but we’re making some progress. But we have some unanswered questions that need to be answered,” he added.

“We’re going to have to be looking at spending caps or sequestration. Sequestration would be devastating to national security in a troubled world we live in,” Shelby said, summarizing the argument that GOP senators are making to the White House.

If Trump and Senate and House leaders fail to reach a deal to raise the spending caps, the automatic cuts known as sequestration set up by the 2011 Budget Control Act will take effect in January.

Asked whether Mnuchin and Mulvaney appeared moved by the prospect of steep cuts to defense programs, Shelby said, “I think so.”

Mnuchin told reporters after the meeting that the White House will agree to link a spending caps deal with legislation to raise the federal debt limit past the 2020 election, a victory for Senate leaders who want to take care of the nation’s most pressing fiscal business with one deal.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said White House officials agreed to link the spending deal to raising the debt limit at a meeting last month, but Mnuchin confirmed it Wednesday.

“Our preference is if we reach a caps deal, the debt ceiling has to be included,” he said.

Mnuchin also said he will brief Trump on the results of the meeting.

“We wouldn’t reach any agreement without the president being fully on board. He’s fully briefed on all our conversations,” he said.

If McConnell and Shelby can’t clinch a deal on new spending caps, the Senate will have to come up with its own top-line numbers to move forward with spending bills, a strategy the Democratic-controlled House has already adopted.

Shelby said he’d prefer to reach a deal with the White House instead of move spending bills through the Senate with the prospect that Trump may veto them later this year.

“We’ve been discussing whether to move forward, deem something, assume something — but we’d rather do it with certainty,” he said.

One Republican senator expressed optimism that McConnell will be able to convince Mulvaney, a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, to accept a two-year spending deal, even though it increases the deficit.

“We actually feel pretty good about it,” said the lawmaker. “There are some folks in the White House that in a vacuum wouldn’t mind if the wheels fell off [a budget deal.] We’d spend less money.”

But the lawmaker said that would send a bad signal to allies around the world as it would likely result in a severe defense spending cut.