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As military preps for new shutdown threat, lawmakers sound optimistic tone

President Donald Trump will now have five days to decide whether to release the memo. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Lawmakers on both sides of a bitter partisan debate on Capitol Hill haven’t ruled out a temporary funding bill to head off a crucial deadline Thursday.

The talks could signal that Congress is headed for a new stopgap budget plan rather than a repeat of last month’s government shutdown.

Some say a vote will need to be in the works by Tuesday with Republicans gone much of last week for a party retreat and their Democratic counterparts headed to theirs Wednesday.

“The fact that the Hill has been basically out of session since Tuesday does not bode well for avoiding a shutdown,” warned Lauren Fish, a defense strategies research associate for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. However, “Democrats are heading out of town Wednesday. … After ceding defeat on the last shutdown, it won’t be good optically if they shut the government down and then get out of Dodge.”

The military, along with the rest of the government, is operating off its fourth short-term funding bill since the 2018 fiscal year started Oct. 1. It’s become common practice for Congress to rely on the continuing resolutions, or CRs, until a full budget is approved.

Several are betting against a Feb. 8 shutdown, especially if House Republican fiscal hawks and Senate Democrats are on board with a funding deal.

“I think another CR is much more likely than another shutdown,” said Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington. “The only way I see another shutdown happening is if the group of House Republicans who have threatened to vote against another CR … actually do so and enough House Democrats follow through on their commitment to oppose a CR” without an immigration fix.

But amid rising tensions on the Hill, even temporary budget bills have been a challenging feat in recent weeks. For the first time in nearly five years, a three-day government shutdown was triggered Jan. 20.

The move had minimal impact, especially compared to a 16-day halt in 2013 that delayed a rash of military programs, including personnel pay and death gratuity benefits for Gold Star families.

Some key lawmakers have said they are closer this time around to an overall deal.

“They are very close to a budget agreement,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, said from a Republican retreat in West Virginia on Thursday. “The big question is will there … be some folks in the Senate who hold that deal hostage to other issues.”

There are talks about a two-year plan that could surpass statutory budget caps for defense and non-defense spending. A 2018 military budget of $700 billion awaits funding, and last month, reports revealed that President Donald Trump’s White House will ask for $716 billion for 2019.

It’s still an uphill battle, as lawmakers will also need to consider lifting the debt ceiling by early March.

“In every earlier deal, there has been parity in the increases for defense and nondefense spending,” Fish said of previous budget plans. “But a huge increase in federal spending to coincide with raising the debt ceiling is an incredibly tough pill to swallow for fiscal hawks.”

Republicans will need votes from Senate Democrats, who have been holding out for an extension to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which faces a March 5 deadline.

Even as the military preps for another possible work stoppage, the Pentagon is sounding an optimistic tone.

“I trust that Congress will do their job and pass a budget and write the check,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a media briefing Thursday.

However, the military and their supporters are continuing to weigh preparations for another potential shutdown with lessons learned from last month’s halt in noncritical operations. Among them: A plan that would let Gold Star families receive death benefits despite a government shutdown has garnered a rash of new sponsors and supporters, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization.

“I’m very hopeful that with their help, this bill will get a vote,” said Keith Humphrey of Kansas, a Navy veteran and father-in-law to a fallen Marine Corps servicemember, who has been working on the bill.

Last week, Army Secretary Mark Esper, during travel to U.S. European Command, said he and his fellow civilian leaders are working to mitigate further disruptions. The shutdown impacted training for tens of thousands of National Guard and Reserve soldiers, he said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, implored Republican members for a budget deal during a private meeting at their West Virginia retreat.

“Over the last nine years, we have been operating under a CR for more than a third of the time. That’s three years we have operated under a CR,” Thornberry said following the meeting with Mattis and Tillerson. “The secretaries were very clear and direct about the imperative about getting a budget agreement in place so that we can end the series of CRs and threats of shutdown.”

Some have said that a new continuing resolution could extend to March 22, which could run into a late February to early March deadline to raise debt ceiling. “The need to raise the debt limit … is important because if negotiations over a spending bill get wrapped up with the debt limit, that would raise the stakes,” Reynolds said.

If a continuing resolution goes past the debt ceiling date, that would keep the negotiations separate, Reynolds said.

Thornberry has kept the window open to reluctantly vote for another continuing resolution.

“We are just gonna have to see what the situation is when it arrives,” he said. “Obviously there is a lot of conversations among members about the way forward, 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.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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