By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate, on their return from summer recess on Tuesday, sought to gain the upper hand over House Republicans in talks over government funding as the threat of an embarrassing October government shutdown looms.
A bipartisan group of senators in the Democratic-controlled chamber collaborated on President Joe Biden’s request for a stopgap spending bill to keep agencies funded until deals can be brokered on the full fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
In a separate but related effort, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee backed the 12 separate spending bills that would finance most government operations for fiscal 2024, while their House Appropriations Committee produces bills with support only from Republicans, who control the House.
The Senate so far is sticking with the $1.59 trillion discretionary spending budget Biden and House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy had embraced, while some hardline House conservatives push for cuts below what their leader agreed to.
“All sides must work together in good faith without engaging in extremist or all-or-nothing tactics,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said of the looming negotiations between the Senate and House on those 12 bills.
The strongly bipartisan effort by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Schumer added, “sets a good template (for) how things should work in Congress.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn accused Schumer of erecting a formula for failure after Schumer said on Friday that the Senate’s focus this month “will be on funding the government and preventing House Republican extremists from forcing a government shutdown.”
That, Cornyn said, was a “preemptive strike to try to blame Republicans in the House for all this; I mean, he needs to look in the mirror.”
The White House last week called on Congress to pass a short-term “continuing resolution” to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, avoiding the fourth shutdown in a decade.
Some hardline House Republicans have dismissed the risks of a government shutdown, saying it could be a cudgel for achieving deeper spending cuts to address the $31.4 trillion national debt. Few other lawmakers in the House or Senate have expressed such an appetite.
Republicans in the House, which returns from its summer break next week, have internal differences over matters ranging from more emergency aid to Ukraine to the size of government-wide spending.
The hardline House Freedom Caucus has insisted on paring discretionary spending for 2024 to the 2022 level of $1.47 trillion, $120 billion below the level accepted by McCarthy and Biden.
Less contentious is Biden’s request for approving emergency funds this month to help communities hard-hit by storms, fires and other natural disasters.
Unlike spending fights from the last several years, the Senate appears eager to promptly get the stopgap bill passed and then present its united front to splintered House Republicans in negotiations, which could extend into December, on the longer-term bills.
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell has voted for every one of the 12 fiscal 2024 bills advanced by the Senate Appropriations Committee, as have nearly all of his fellow committee Republicans.
McConnell last week bemoaned the funding fight, saying, “Honestly, it’s a pretty big mess.” Speaking to a business group in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell warned that the lower, $1.47 trillion in spending for 2024 is “not going to be replicated in the Senate.”
Meanwhile, as some hardline House Republicans push for defense spending cuts instead of a buildup, there is pushback within their 222-member caucus.