WASHINGTON — US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will reject House Speaker Paul Ryan's plans for "minibus" packages of appropriations bills in favor of a single omnibus — dismissing the GOP plan as "a little bit too cute."
It's Pelosi's strongest talk yet on the topic, a bad omen for a bipartisan budget deal, and it augurs another stop-gap continuing resolution of some duration to fund the government, analysts say. The CR Congress passed last month runs out on Dec. 9, and lawmakers would have to pass another to avert a government shutdown if they cannot reach a deal on 2017 federal spending.
The Pentagon, which has started 12 of the last 17 fiscal years on a CR, has reason to dislike them. Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord told the Congressional Research Service in August that many DoD programs and activities would be affected under an interim CR through bans on new-start programs, limits on production quantity increases, and color-of money questions, if such issues are not otherwise specifically resolved in the bill text.
Battle lines have been drawn in Congress. House and Senate Democrats, fearing the GOP will somehow short non-defense spending, have blocked individual bills to net a grand bargain. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who oppose the idea of a last-minute, trillion-dollar bill — each say they favor the minibus concept. Still, members of the hard-right wing of Ryan's caucus have sought a CR that spans all of 2017, and it remains unclear whether they could be brought aboard the minibus.
"I’ve been skeptical of the minibus idea, but there are still a lot of divisions there, both between the two parties and within the House Republican caucus, that would make an omnibus a difficult lift," said Avascent research and analysis director Matt Vallone, a former congressional staffer.
Pelosi, in a press conference Wednesday, panned both the CR passed last month and the potential minibuses as "two derelictions of duty; We are failing on two scores." Instead, she said, Congress should focus on a broad bipartisan deal to fund 2017 federal spending.
"We have to rise up to our responsibility of what we have to do," Pelosi said. "We come back, we are ready to cooperate in any way to get this done in a reasonable time and remove all doubt that we will have an appropriations bill going into next year. But this is a little bit too cute."
As the implosion of Donald Trump's presidential campaign threatens down-ballot Republicans, analysts project Democrats could take the Senate in the Nov. 8 election, while the GOP could wind up with a slimmer, unreliable majority with a higher proportion of conservative House Freedom Caucus members.
If that happens, Democrats will be less likely to compromise with Republicans, said Jim Moran, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who served for many years on the House Appropriations Committee. He is a defense lobbyist with McDermott Will & Emery in Washington.
"If Republicans don't want to deal with the cards in her deck, then that's okay with her, because I think she will have a much stronger hand in the spring—certainly on the Senate side," Moran said of Pelosi.
Ryan will remain the man in the middle, losing support from his activist right flank whenever he reaches across the aisle. Vallone speculated conservatives will push to include policy riders Democrats consider "poison bills," another source of friction.
"I have trouble seeing how he could pass something in the House that doesn't damage his standing with the right," Vallone said of Ryan. "You can see a scenario in December where they say, 'We need more time to work on this,' and not wanting to shut down prior to the holidays."
The lame duck calendar will limit time to reach a deal. The three weeks Congress is in session before the Dec. 9 deadline boil down to about 10 actual working days, Moran said.
"I think there's going to be a lot of exuberance, excitement from Democrats after this election, and I think the Republicans will be in a state of disarray, with the Trump yoke around their neck — and they will be trying to get their bearings," Moran said. "I don't think there will be time for thoughtful legislation."
By Moran's estimate, that adds up to a CR into the next administration, an anathema to Pentagon planning.
"It's no way to run a government, let alone the world's mightiest military power," Moran said. "You need a full defense appropriations bill, not some kind of ratcheted-together, band-aided amalgam of anomalies and last year's programs. It does the Pentagon an injustice, and more importantly, it diminishes our national security."