Correction: A previous version of this story used an erroneous title for Sen. Chuck Schumer, and it has since been corrected in this updated version.
WASHINGTON — There's a lot of optimism in Congress that when it returns from recess on Monday, it can quickly reach a budget deal, averting both a partial shutdown and a long-term stop-gap budget that would vex defense interests.
But it's unclear how the final appropriations package between House and Senate leaders will treat the White House's request for $18 billion in domestic cuts, and the added $30 billion for defense and $3 billion for border security. Plus, there is potential for a showdown with Democrats who insist the deal contain continued subsidies for lower-income users of the Affordable Care Act and exclude border wall funding.
Voicing confidence in his party's leverage, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democratic and Senate leaders of both parties — the "four corners" — are close to a deal and that President Donald Trump will be to blame if they fail.
"If the president doesn't interfere and insist on poison-pill amendments to be shoved down the throat of the Congress, we can come up with an agreement," Schumer said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "Our Republican colleagues know that since they control all — you know, the House, the Senate and the White House — that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don't want it. We want to make sure it's a good budget that meets our principles, but so far, so good.
Schumer wants to put off immigration to next year and said Democrats would reject funding for Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico.
"We think that the immigration issue should be discussed in the 2018 budget," Schumer said. "Nothing should be shoved down people's throats. That would apply to the many immigration issues that are before us; not just the wall."
To avert a shutdown when the current stopgap spending bill expires April 28, lawmakers have to pass a budget for fiscal 2017 or pass another stopgap bill. Though a stopgap bill that continues 2016 funding levels through the end of the year is a threat, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees have vowed to vote against one because it would restrict defense spending.
A weeklong continuing resolution is a possibility, either due to procedural hurdles to quickly calling a vote in the House or for tactical reasons. Leadership may want to call the vote just before the House recesses for a week on May 4 in order to pressure "yes" votes.
Military leaders have called on lawmakers to avoid a long-term continuing resolution and pass the supplemental spending request for defense, arguing that sorely needed training, nuclear modernization, acquisition programs and even the lives of troops on a future battlefield are at stake.
The path to a deal, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has acknowledged, will need Democratic support. That's because it would need 60 votes, and Republicans hold 52 seats.
Since House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pulled a bill to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act on March 24, Republicans are under pressure to rack up victories in Congress and establish momentum. Though the Senate succeeded in confirming a conservative Supreme Court judge, some GOP lawmakers feel the party risks losing its window to pass health care and tax reform before the spotlight of 2018 midterm elections make the issues too hot for some lawmakers to handle.
Mackenzie Eaglen, of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, predicts Congress likely will use a familiar formula to reach a deal by increasing defense and non-defense spending by raising legal caps and parking some spending in budget cap-exempt wartime spending. By her reckoning, the combined spending would mean a boost of between $15 billion and $25 billion over current plans.
Tom Cole, a key GOP strategist and member of the House Budget Committee and House Appropriations' Defense Subcommittee, said that with Republicans in control of Congress and the presidency, anything short of a bipartisan budget deal "is an indictment of Republican governance." Republicans would be badly served by a shutdown or long-term continuing resolution, he said.
Republicans can drop partisan policy riders and patiently wait for Trump to accomplish the same goals through executive action, Cole said. If Democrats insist on an increase on the non-defense side of the budget to match the defense supplemental — another potential roadblock — Republicans would do well to meet them partway.
"If you're going to force things down the throat of Democrats, you're going to have a CR or run the risk of a shutdown," Cole said. "Just let the appropriators split the difference, as they often do on these things."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.