WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — With a shutdown deadline looming Feb. 8 and no long-term deal at hand, congressional Republican leaders said Thursday they will have to pass yet another short-term spending bill next week to keep the government open.
Yet attempts to reach a longer-term deal have faltered amid a larger dispute over immigration and disagreement between the two parties about spending levels, as well as reluctance among some conservatives to sign off on massive new government spending in an election year. The three-day partial shutdown late last month was precipitated by Senate Democrats' demands for protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, called "dreamers," an issue that remains unresolved.
As Republicans gathered at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for their annual retreat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) insisted the government would stay open.
"I don't think we'll see a threatened government shutdown again over this subject," he said. "One of my favorite old Kentucky country sayings is 'There's no education in the second kick of a mule,' so I think there'll be a new level of seriousness here in trying to resolve these issues."
Even so, it seemed unlikely that House and Senate negotiators would be able to strike the bipartisan, two-year budget deal they are striving for ahead of Feb. 8. Even if they do, lawmakers would need weeks to turn agreed-upon figures into complete spending bills for all the agencies of government.
Next week's stopgap legislation would be the fifth short-term "continuing resolution" of this fiscal year, a situation that is causing frustration and finger-pointing on all sides. That includes within GOP ranks, which could jeopardize passage of the resolution as conservative lawmakers and defense hawks both threatened Thursday to withhold their votes.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said his group might not support another short-term spending bill without promises of action on higher military spending levels and other issues.
"I don't see the probability of the Freedom Caucus supporting a fifth CR without substantial changes by Feb. 8 unless we see dramatic changes," Meadows told reporters. "We've had the land of promise for four times now on CRs. It's time to put some real commitment to the effort before a fifth CR."
Defense hawks in the House have grown increasingly frustrated with the multiple short-term spending bills, contending that they threaten military readiness and cost lives, since the Pentagon is not getting the money it needs.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters after a closed-door session with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that both Cabinet members were insisting on an end to short-term spending bills.
"The secretaries were very clear, I think, in encouraging Congress to resolve the budget issues and end the continuing resolutions so that they can manage their departments," Thornberry said, "and more importantly, so the world knows that we are functioning and can do whatever needs to be done to protect the national security of the United States."
Thornberry refused to commit to voting for the continuing resolution expected on the floor next week.
"We're just going to have to see what the situation is when it arrives. Obviously there's a lot of conversation among members at this retreat about the way forward," he said. "Nobody wants a government shutdown, but we also cannot continue to inflict the damage that CRs inflict on the military. We can't keep doing that."
Overall discretionary spending levels — funding for education, housing, defense and much more — are capped under a 2011 law, and exceeding those limits requires bipartisan agreement under Senate filibuster rules. Republicans are trying to negotiate an enormous increase in military spending in the pending budget deal, which Democrats hope to match with domestic spending.
Budget deals passed under President Barack Obama in 2013 and 2015 proceeded along those lines. But now, with Republicans in the White House and in control of both houses of Congress, GOP lawmakers want to pursue a tougher posture.
Meadows and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, suggested they might be willing to live with an increase in nondefense spending as long as the extra funding is devoted to infrastructure, a major congressional agenda item for the Trump administration. There is no indication that Democrats, who are pushing for new investments to combat the opioid crisis and beef up veterans' benefits, would agree to those terms.
"Obviously we're probably going to need a short-term CR," said Thune, while acknowledging little progress has been made since last month's shutdown.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pushed back at suggestions of an impasse, declaring in a terse statement Thursday that "discussion on the caps deal is going very well."
With the 2018 spending talks in a rut, the 2019 process increasingly appeared to be over before it even began. House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said he was considering skipping the annual task of putting together a budget resolution, which sets out top-line spending levels that set the stage for the appropriations process, and instead having his panel focus on making changes to the budget process itself.
"If we spend our time just spinning our wheels on something that certainly will not have a force of law and, No. 2, is not ever going to see the light of day, it begs this question: Would you be better off spending that time doing something that will have much better long-term effects for what we do as a committee?" he said. "At the early stages of this discussion, I would say that I would support that."
GOP senators have already acknowledged that the Senate isn't likely to pass a budget either. In forgoing a budget Republicans give up procedural rules that allow them to pass legislation without risk of a Democratic filibuster, which all but ensures they will make no effort at major entitlement reforms or another attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The need to raise the federal debt limit is further complicating the budget negotiations. The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that the limit will have to be raised above its current $20 trillion level by the first half of March — earlier than expected because of the GOP's recent tax-cut legislation. The last increase was passed in September as part of a temporary spending agreement brokered between President Trump and congressional Democrats.
Republicans have typically found it hard, if not impossible, to cobble together enough House votes from their own party to increase the debt limit. That gives Democrats further leverage to bargain for spending concessions.
The CBO's announcement put the issue back into the spotlight, and Meadows said there are "discussions going on right now about the debt ceiling that I'm not at liberty to talk about" on ways to win conservative support for a debt ceiling measure.
Hard-liners have floated a number of proposals meant to rein in federal spending, though none has ever gotten broader buy-in from lawmakers.
Meadows said he has spoken to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin "on how we can effectively make some real reforms in that area, and based on those initial conversations, a number of Freedom Caucus members could potentially support those efforts."
Thune said all the pending issues, from spending to immigration to the debt ceiling, could end up getting dealt with together.
"There's sort of a pileup of things happening, all of which I think at some point could end up being merged together," he said.