Attempts to avert a government shutdown hit a snag late Monday as a bloc of conservative lawmakers pressured top GOP leaders to set a new spending deadline for just after Christmas — instead of just before — in a bid to maintain the party's leverage in talks with Democrats over spending levels and other year-end concerns.
Government funding is set to expire Friday, giving Republicans who control Congress just a few days to shore up support. President Trump and top congressional leaders agreed to meet Thursday afternoon to discuss details of a new year-end spending agreement — just hours before spending runs out.
Over the weekend, Republican leaders unveiled a bill to keep the government operating through Dec. 22, giving bipartisan negotiators more time to reach an agreement.
But in a sign of trouble, members of the House Freedom Caucus on Monday night briefly withheld support for a bill to formally launch negotiations with the Senate on a GOP tax restructuring plan — not over issues with the Senate legislation, but as a way to extract concessions from Republican leaders on the spending measure.
Freedom Caucus members ultimately helped Republicans approve the launch of formal tax negotiations, but leaders of the bloc said that House GOP leaders had agreed to keep talking about possibly setting the next deadline on Dec. 30.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the Freedom Caucus, said his group would rather see the next spending deadline fall after Christmas and asked GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 — a date that would require lawmakers to interrupt their planned holiday recess. Meadows said he had received "a commitment to talk further."
"Ultimately, there are no good decisions that get made three days before Christmas, ever," Meadows said.
Signs of growing conservative concerns surfaced during the vote on the tax bill about 7 p.m. as caucus members withheld their votes or were voting "no" against launching tax negotiations. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who was not in the U.S. Capitol during the vote, called Meadows during the vote and agreed to raise the possibility of moving back the spending deadline with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to aides. On the House floor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was also spotted in an intense back-and-forth with several Freedom Caucus members.
Later, in a brief interview, McCarthy said he made no firm promises to change the date. "I said I have no problems with 22nd or 30th. We'll let the conference decide which way to go."
Asked if he personally thought Republicans would have more leverage Dec. 30 than Dec. 22, he said he did not.
Meadows also spoke twice Monday evening with Trump about his group's idea. Ultimately, House GOP leaders said they would bring up the issue at the House Republican conference meeting Tuesday morning. And Freedom Caucus members switched their "no" votes to "yes."
Conservative leaders described the move as a "tactical decision" meant to reduce the chances that Republicans would have to accept an immigration deal with Democrats or higher spending caps alongside a vote to cut taxes.
"Keep 'em separate," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus.
He said the group wants the spending bill to come after the tax plan is considered, "because if they come at the same time, who knows what else gets added to what I suspect is already going to be an already bad spending bill? That's our concern."
A House GOP leadership aide said there is a mutual understanding that the tax and spending bills should be kept as separate as possible. There is no firm agreement on Dec. 30, but the date will be discussed at a Tuesday morning GOP conference meeting. There also is no guarantee that Senate Republicans would agree to moving the deadline back, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about ongoing talks.
Democrats, meanwhile, won't say how they plan to proceed. Republicans control both houses of Congress, but Democrats historically have had significant leverage in federal spending debates. In the House, no government spending bill has passed without at least 57 Democratic votes since Republicans regained control of the chamber in 2011. In the Senate, no spending bill has passed without at least 23 Democrats in support since the GOP regained control in 2015, according to congressional records.
"We'll see what they have," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters late Monday about the GOP's spending plans.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday accepted Trump's invitation to meet with him, Ryan and McConnell, a face-to-face encounter that was supposed to happen last week. Democrats backed out of the meeting after Trump tweeted his doubts about reaching a bipartisan deal to keep the government open and settle disputes over policy issues including immigration and health care.
Democrats are pressuring Republicans to resolve the legal status of "dreamers," or immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, after Trump announced plans in September to end an Obama-era program that grants many of them temporary legal status. Coming up with a new plan is a big sticking point for Democrats in spending talks.
Despite the impasse, McConnell vowed Monday that the Senate would pass the spending bill by the end of the week.
Privately, Democratic aides say that talks are continuing among senior staff members about spending levels and changes in immigration policy that could win over enough Democrats in both chambers.
The leading concern in ongoing discussions is exactly how much more money the federal government plans to spend in the coming years. Talks are focused on raising federal spending levels by $180 billion to $200 billion over the next two years, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing talks. Republicans are pushing for hundreds of billions more for Pentagon spending, but Democrats insist that it must be matched with equal money for nondefense programs.
In their statement, Schumer and Pelosi said Monday that several other "key priorities here at home" also need to be resolved.
The Democratic list includes funding to combat opioid addiction, shore up certain pension plans, pay for major infrastructure projects, replenish the Children's Health Insurance Program and cash-strapped community health centers, and help states ravaged by recent hurricanes and wildfires. Democrats also called on Republicans to work with them on an immigration plan that would protect dreamers and create new border security measures.
"There is a bipartisan path forward on all of these items," the Democratic leaders said.