WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va.—Congressional Republican leaders may have hoped the fresh Appalachian mountain air surrounding their tony retreat at The Greenbrier resort would lend some clarity to what they have to accomplish when they go back to Capitol Hill.
But as a thick fog descended over the Allegheny Mountains on Thursday afternoon, the only thing left clear was the fact that leaders are no closer to solving the pressing issues of the day than before they left their Washington offices Wednesday.
On immigration, government spending, and raising the debt limit, the trail ahead is uncertain. Chief among the concerns is that government spending once again runs out Feb. 8, and GOP leaders said they will attempt to push through their fifth continuing resolution in as many months. The process of funding the government in fits and starts has been grating for members.
“I feel like Richard Burton on his honeymoon night the second time he married Elizabeth Taylor: I know what I’ve got to do, I just don’t know how I’m going to make it interesting,” one member joked to others in the gathering, according to a source in the room.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told members at a morning session that President Trump wants $700 billion in defense spending this fiscal year and $716 billion for next. The numbers are music to the ears of defense hawks, but leaves other members caught in the middle.
Among them is House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack. He said that the high defense numbers and the deficit effects of the tax-cuts law, among other factors, may mean that Congress will not pass a budget this year.
“Doing a budget resolution that will be meaningful, that you can get the House and Senate together on, is very problematic right now,” he said. “And of course we add to the fact that it’s an election year and that makes it even more difficult to get things done.”
A continuing resolution will not be easy either. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows indicated earlier in the day that his group would not likely provide leadership with votes to pass the CR this time. On the other hand, Rep. Scott Perry, the group’s whip, noted that members are in talks with leadership to extract some promises in exchange for their votes, although he would not say what they trying to negotiate.
Perry said he feels as if he is constantly made to choose between adequately funding the military or running up the national debt and deficit—and either way, a deal gets “shoved down our throats” in the end.
“We keep on asking for another month, another month, waiting for a caps deal,” he said. “This is awful for the military, and I see no end in sight. Show me something that’s going to make a difference. And so far I see nothing that leads me to believe or have any confidence that anything is going to be different.”
The continuing resolution is necessary, leaders said, to give appropriators more time to negotiate spending caps. In order to meet Mattis’s defense-spending target, the deal would have to include a measure eliminating or raising sequestration spending caps, or the legislation would risk being automatically cut to conform with the sequester’s statutory limit.
“I think we’re making progress on a cap agreement, and even if we get everything figured out by, say, Tuesday, we still will have to have a CR if only for the fact that we have to give appropriators time to write an omnibus bill,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry raised alarms to reporters, noting that the continual short-term measures have been directly responsible for military training accidents that have killed American servicemembers over the past year and that sequestration has has negative effects.
“The president said it in the State of the Union: What the Budget Control Act was intended to do, it has failed. And what it has done is damaged our military, so it’s got to be fixed,” he said. “Nobody has ever taken that seriously from the beginning of this discussion. No question the caps have to be repealed or raised to accomodate what we need to do for our military.”
Of course, a room full of Republicans can only accomplish so much. Democrats have been loathe to sign off on any spending deal until Republicans agree to a deal to protect immigrants who were in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but whose status is in limbo since Trump said he will end the program on March 5.
At the retreat, Trump told Republicans there remains a very real possibility that date will come and go without a deal in place.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte told reporters that he still expects the House to vote on his hard-line immigration bill, but said he thinks any measure too lenient on interior enforcement would not pass. That is different from Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune’s assessment that a small-bore deal trading border-wall funding for a DACA fix may be necessary.
By the end of March, it may be clear which plan will win out. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, keeping with his promise to Democrats in exchange for their votes to reopen the government, said he is willing to hold several votes on several immigration plans to see which can win out.
“Democrats have endlessly been trying to shoehorn the immigration issue into that collection of discussions,” he said. “If those are not resolved, I’m perfectly happy, provided the government is still open on Feb. 8, to go to the subject and to treat it in a fair way, not try to tilt the playing field in anybody’s direction and we’ll see who can get to 60 votes.”