Johnson and Schumer spar over elusive solution to Friday’s shutdown cliff

Government funding talks devolved into public finger pointing Sunday evening, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer accused House Republicans of needing to "sort themselves out" and Speaker Mike Johnson cited "new Democrat demands" for snagging endgame negotiations.

Top lawmakers and appropriators had hoped to unveil the text of a small spending package over the weekend, possibly alongside another short-term funding patch to buy more time for talks on fiscal 2024 bills, beyond the March 1 and March 8 shutdown deadlines. But any hope of reaching an agreement is now slipping into the week, risking a funding lapse at midnight on Friday for the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and others.

Schumer and Johnson, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, are expected to meet Tuesday with President Joe Biden to discuss government funding and stalled emergency money for Ukraine, Israel and other issues.

Schumer wrote in a letter to colleagues on Sunday that it is his "sincere hope" that Johnson "will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing."

"While we had hoped to have legislation ready this weekend that would give ample time for members to review the text, it is clear now that House Republicans need more time to sort themselves out," he said. "With the uncertainty of how the House will pass the appropriations bills and avoid a shutdown this week, I ask all Senators to keep their schedules flexible, so we can work to ensure a pointless and harmful lapse in funding doesn’t occur."

Johnson called Schumer's letter "counterproductive rhetoric," insisting that House Republicans continue to "work in good faith" and "hope to reach an outcome as soon as possible."

Many of the remaining sticking points "come from new Democrat demands that were not previously included in the Senate bills," Johnson said in a statement. "At a time of divided government, Senate Democrats are attempting at this late stage to spend on priorities that are farther left than what their chamber agreed upon."

In the run-up to the shutdown cliff, appropriations staff has been working around the clock in hopes of clinching a deal on some or all of the first four bills set to expire, including the Agriculture-FDA, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD measures.

Johnson is facing tremendous pressure from his right flank to secure policy wins across the bills on topics ranging from abortion to guns. During a conference call with Republicans on Friday night, he said he couldn't rule out the possibility of a partial government shutdown at week's end.

Negotiators in recent days have sparred over cuts to agriculture programs and limits on how USDA spends money, for example. Both sides have also warred over a policy rider that would ban mail delivery of abortion pills, a heated impasse over nutrition funding for low-income mothers and babies, as well as a pilot program proposed by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) that would restrict SNAP food aid purchases.

The timeline for any legislative action is exceedingly tight. The House, which has been expected to move first on any bills, won't be in session until Wednesday. The Senate, set to deal with impeachment articles against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, returns from recess on Monday.

Aside from funding regular government operations, congressional leaders continue to spar over foreign military aid. On the heels of his trip with several other Senate Democrats to Ukraine, Schumer challenged Johnson to visit the country "and witness what we witnessed, because I believe it is virtually impossible for anyone with decency and goodwill to turn their back on Ukraine if they saw the horrors of that war with their own eyes."

The Senate's national security supplemental, which would deliver tens of billions of dollars in emergency aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, would pass the House if Johnson allowed a vote, Schumer wrote. "Now is the time for action. Speaker Johnson cannot let politics or blind obeisance to Donald Trump get in the way."

Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.

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Lawmakers fret over another holiday punt on government funding

Congress is in a familiar mode this holiday season: increasing worry about missing a government funding deadline.

With the Dec. 16 deadline rapidly approaching, leading lawmakers haven't even made the critical first step to agree on overall spending levels — raising the chances of a stopgap patch needed to avoid a shutdown just before the holidays.

Democrats' unexpectedly strong midterm performance, a Senate runoff in Georgia on Dec. 6, contentious GOP leadership elections and shifting dynamics for both parties have all delayed progress toward cementing even the beginnings of a broader funding deal for the current fiscal year.

Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a top appropriator, laughed when asked about meeting the mid-December deadline: "I just don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s just too much confusion going on."

The muddle carries serious stakes for a multitude of government programs, not to mention the future of congressional spending debates. Lawmakers fear that any funding bill they can agree on before 2023 might be the last one Congress passes for at least the next two years due to a slew of factors, including a slim incoming House majority that's already splintered over federal spending and a presidential election that looms in 2024.

In lieu of annual appropriations bills, Congress could pass continuing resolutions that allow federal agencies to operate on stagnant funding levels, often hamstringing programs and priorities in the process. How long such a funding patch would last is still unclear — possibly punting the problem closer to the holidays or the last week of December — though lawmakers are determined to pass a revamped spending deal before the next Congress.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said last week that she's “laser-like” focused on meeting the mid-December date.

“I think people want to try to move forward,” she said. “That’s the impression that I have, to get the toplines done.”

DeLauro’s GOP counterpart, Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, said negotiations “are starting to get together.”

“We haven’t come to conclusions but we are talking,” Granger said. On meeting the Dec. 16 deadline, she said: “Yes, we’ll do it.”

Retiring Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also indicated last week that congressional spending leaders are making progress toward an agreement on overarching funding levels for defense and nondefense programs, from which a deal on a dozen appropriations bills would flow. But he conceded that the Senate runoff in Georgia could delay talks, after negotiators had already postponed talks due to the midterm elections.

“I wish it wouldn’t. It’s possible. But the sooner we do it the better,” Leahy said.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior House appropriator, said lead negotiators Leahy, DeLauro, Granger and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the Senate's top GOP appropriator, "haven't even gotten into serious negotiations yet ... and that’s a problem.”

When asked if he’s making holiday plans in case the work drags on, Cole said, “Nope. Washington is beautiful when it snows.”

Congressional spending leaders have been hoping to nail down a fiscal 2023 funding accord before January, when the GOP regains a slim majority in the House and a whole new session of Congress begins — with a host of brand new members unfamiliar with the appropriations process.

Even Republicans admit that passing annual spending bills will be much harder in 2023 with such a narrow House majority, arguing that it makes more sense to wipe the slate clean before the start of the 119th Congress.

“As fractured as we are on a lot of other issues, there’s probably no better indicator of the fractures in our caucus than those on federal spending,” said Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, the top Republican on the Financial Services spending subcommittee. He noted that his colleagues are split over various parts of the appropriations process, including whether to keep earmarks, slash federal spending or crack down on the IRS.

“I’m loath to tell you this but I wouldn’t expect any clarity on [government funding] until the very week that we begin to lapse in appropriations, because that has become the new normal in Congress and that is regrettable,” Womack said. “We are unaware of any serious negotiations going on at all.”

Leahy and Shelby, two long-time dealmaking partners and appropriating powerhouses, are both retiring at the end of the year, ramping up the pressure for one last bipartisan deal. But even if appropriators hammer out an agreement in such a short time, there are complicated questions over what will get attached to the $1.5 trillion-plus government funding package, since it will likely represent one of lawmakers' last chances this term to get priorities onto a must-pass package.

The Biden administration has already asked for nearly $38 billion in additional Ukraine aid and $10 billion in emergency health funding, of which $9 billion would go to address current and long-term Covid needs. The White House plans to ask for additional disaster relief to address hurricanes and wildfires this year, as well.

Republicans aren’t likely to support the administration’s call for more Covid-19 funding, rejecting a $22 billion request from the White House earlier this year. And a number of conservatives have argued that the U.S. needs to shut off the spigot of military assistance to Ukraine, calling for further evaluations into the cash Congress has already sent.

Congress has so far provided about $66 billion for Ukraine and other war-related needs. The administration argues that about three-quarters of that funding has either been spent or is committed to specific purposes.

Many lawmakers worry that passing the massive package could prove impossible next year. Rep. David Price of North Carolina, the retiring top Democrat on the Transportation-HUD spending subpanel, said it all needs to come together soon because appropriating next year “will be very, very hard.”

“I think appropriations needs to function with at least minimal bipartisanship,” he said. “It’s all the more reason to get fiscal 2023 enacted.”

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Dems prepare for party-line House vote on Biden’s pandemic aid bill

The House is on track to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package by the end of this week as Congress sprints to deliver aid to millions of Americans reeling from the pandemic and facing a jobless benefits cliff in mid-March.

But House Democrats aren't expecting to get a single GOP vote for their aid package, which they're taking up with the procedural maneuver known as reconciliation in order to win Senate passage without the threat of a filibuster. The House Budget Committee will meet Monday afternoon to tee up the legislation for floor passage on Friday or Saturday, with Senate action as soon as the following week.

Monday's markup is one of the last major House steps in the reconciliation process, but the final aid package sent to the president’s desk will likely change from the House-passed bill. That's because Senate consideration will be laden with political minefields, and major provisions in the bill — such as its minimum wage hike or paid sick leave expansion — could be stripped out or rejiggered as Democrats in the upper chamber muddle through budget restrictions during floor debate.

In short, there's plenty of uncertainty to come before the House and Senate must ultimately resolve any differences and agree on any amendments before the measure is sent to Biden’s desk.

“We’re working as quickly and expeditiously as we possibly can,” said House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “We’ll send it over to the Senate and see what happens.”

The Budget Committee will kick off Monday’s markup with a vote to send the package to the House floor, followed by several more hours in which lawmakers can offer largely symbolic motions, air their grievances or express support for Biden’s plan.

No substantial changes to the text are expected since the Budget panel’s members can’t offer regular amendments. The panel’s meeting to assemble Biden’s plan comes after nine House committees marked up their own portions of the massive measure.

Republicans are almost certain to complain about the proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 and $350 billion for state and local aid, among other parts of the package. House GOP leaders circulated a whip notice Friday urging their members to vote against the bill, arguing that it provides “a bailout" for blue states and pays “people not to work.”

“We’re definitely going to expose how this is the wrong plan, at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons,” said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, who predicted the panel’s markup could last up to six hours. “We’re going to point out all the different items in this legislation that are bad for the working class.”

Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)

In the Senate, committees have started meeting with an official adviser known as the parliamentarian, who will decide whether certain pieces of Biden’s plan run afoul of the so-called Byrd Rule. That rule requires policies passed through the budget reconciliation process to have a significant effect on federal spending, revenues and the debt and bars policies that would lead to debt increases beyond the next decade.

One of the biggest outstanding questions is whether Biden’s push to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009 — a proposal championed by progressives — will survive the budget restrictions.

Democratic leaders and the White House have indicated that they will make a final decision on how to proceed after the Senate parliamentarian rules on the proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been tight-lipped, even with senior members of her leadership team, about the status of talks on the most contentious issues.

But Biden has signaled privately to governors that the wage hike likely isn’t happening as part of his first Covid aid measure. Progressives, like Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have insisted that the provision will survive, citing recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office as evidence.

Democrats could barrel ahead by overruling the parliamentarian if the minimum wage increase doesn’t pass muster, but Biden is leaning heavily against the idea, POLITICO reported earlier this month.

Still, the wage hike remains a top progressive demand, and liberal leaders insist the pandemic relief package is the most viable legislative vehicle this year to get it done.

“It is really important to us that it happens in this package because we think it is directly related to Covid relief,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Given the makeup of the Senate, this is our best opportunity and the right moment in the midst of this pandemic.”

The parliamentarian aside, however, the strategy has run into resistance from moderates in the Senate, with both Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) declaring their opposition to including the wage hike in Biden’s final package.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized Democrats for pursuing a process that excludes their input after Congress passed five coronavirus relief bills last year, totaling nearly $4 trillion, with bipartisan support.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the ranking Republicans from a variety of Senate committees requested that the relief package go through their panels before reaching the floor. But Democrats aren’t expected to comply with that request.

Schumer said in a letter Friday that House and Senate committees are coordinating so lawmakers can quickly move the package to Biden’s desk before unemployment benefits expire on March 14.

“If Republicans are ready to work with Democrats on constructive amendments that will improve the bill, we are ready to work,” Schumer wrote. “However, we must not allow Republican obstructionism to deter us from our mission of delivering help to Americans who desperately need this relief.”

Even if Congress passes the package before unemployment benefits expire on March 14, the relief won’t be immediate. Administrative and bureaucratic snags will delay delivery of major elements of the aid for weeks or even months.

At the state level, officials say it can’t come soon enough.

“We need the help to help our citizens get vaccinated,” Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said Thursday during a call hosted by the advocacy group Invest in America Action.

“We’re 46th in the country when it comes to helping people get vaccinated. There’s no excuse for that,” Fitzgerald said. “We need help. We need help right now.”

Heather Caygle and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Leahy back at home after brief hospitalization

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is back home after a short hospital visit because he felt unwell on Tuesday night, according to his spokesperson.

“The Capitol Physician suggested that Senator Leahy go to George Washington University Hospital this evening for observation, out of an abundance of caution,” spokesperson David Carle said in a statement. “After getting test results back, and after a thorough examination, Senator Leahy now is home. He looks forward to getting back to work.“

Carle didn’t provide more details on the 80-year-old Democratic senator’s symptoms that briefly sent him to the hospital.

Leahy is supposed to preside over President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial starting on Feb. 9 as president pro tempore of the Senate. The president pro tempore is third in line of succession to the presidency and Leahy has already held the position twice.

“The president pro tempore has historically presided over Senate impeachment trials of non-presidents,” he said in a statement earlier this week. Republicans have criticized Leahy's role in the upcoming trial since, as a senator, he's also a juror in the proceedings.

“I consider holding the office of the president pro tempore and the responsibilities that come with it to be one of the highest honors and most serious responsibilities of my career. When I preside over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, I will not waver from my constitutional and sworn obligations to administer the trial with fairness, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws."

The Vermont Democrat, who has spent 46 years in the Senate, also just became chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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Democrats: OMB froze World Health Organization cash with same tactic used to ‘illegally’ halt Ukraine aid

The White House hit pause earlier this year on a $145 million pot of funds intended for the World Health Organization and other foreign assistance programs in a move that Democrats say mirrors the Trump administration’s decision to “illegally” freeze military aid to Ukraine.

That’s according to documents released on Friday by House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, which they obtained from the Office of Management and Budget.

The documents show that the agency used an apportionment footnote to hold up the money, requiring the State Department to produce a “written explanation” describing how the cash would be obligated in line with the president’s priorities. That footnote came as President Donald Trump sought to withdraw from WHO and halt funding for the organization.

“The Trump Administration’s rampant abuse of power has jeopardized our communities, subverted our democracy, violated our laws, and now it has undermined global efforts to fight the coronavirus,” Yarmuth, Lowey and Maloney said in a joint statement.

“The documents obtained by our Committees show OMB took legally-binding steps to cater to the President’s dangerous and misguided whims, using an apportionment footnote to freeze expiring funds and circumvent Congress — the same tactic used to illegally withhold aid to Ukraine and which ultimately led to President Trump’s impeachment,” the lawmakers said.

A senior administration official called House Democrats' release "bogus," arguing that the money was ultimately spent and doesn't amount to a violation of federal budget law. "Nothing happening here," the official said.

The Trump administration’s 2019 decision to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine partly prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged the aid for investigations into his political rival at the time, now President-elect Joe Biden.

The agency first halted funding intended for WHO in August through an apportionment footnote. All of the money for WHO and other international programs was ultimately released just a week before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. In early September, the Trump administration announced that it would distribute millions of dollars owed to the global health organization to other international causes.

Trump and other Republicans last spring railed against the WHO over its initial response to the coronavirus when it emerged in China. The president claimed the world health body ignored the threat and bowed to pressure from China.

The freeze on funding for WHO and other foreign aid programs is notable, given that the Trump administration was never required to spend the money on the international health organization.

Language included in fiscal 2020 spending bills only notes that the administration spend the money on “necessary expenses, not otherwise provided for, to meet annual obligations of membership in international multilateral organizations.”

“We believe that pursuant to the appropriation, we have broad discretion to spend that money,” an administration official told POLITICO in April.

House Democrats have since sought to tighten that language in their fiscal 2021 spending bills for the State Department and USAID, requiring the funds to be spent specifically on WHO.

In April, Yarmuth, Lowey and Maloney introduced a bill, called the “Congressional Power of the Purse Act,” that would require all apportionment documents to be published online.

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Senate confirms Russ Vought to be White House budget chief

The Senate confirmed Russ Vought to lead the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, more than a year after he was tapped as interim director of the agency.

Vought's tenure as acting OMB director has drawn bipartisan scrutiny, including from Republicans who have opposed two failed attempts by the administration to yank back billions in foreign aid.

Democrats have criticized Vought for stonewalling congressional oversight demands, and last year he defied a subpoena after refusing to answer questions about the administration's decision to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine last summer.

That decision prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump leveraged the aid for political favors. But Vought has maintained that the Ukraine aid freeze was part of a broader foreign aid review, not a quid pro quo.

Vought first took the helm of the White House budget office during the 35-day government shutdown in January 2019, after Trump tapped former OMB Director Mick Mulvaney as his acting chief of staff.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) lauded Vought’s confirmation in a statement, adding that his “role will be crucial to help the federal government function in what is shaping up to be a very challenging budget environment that requires the attention of every one of us.“

“I look forward to working with him to help put our nation on a better fiscal path,” said Enzi, who’s retiring after this year.

But Vought has so far unsuccessfully pushed unpopular cuts to rein in federal spending, despite the president’s 2016 campaign pledge to balance the federal budget.

Even before the pandemic, the nation’s budget gap expanded after the administration and Congress embraced the Republican tax revamp in 2017 and a two-year budget deal last summer. The federal deficit is now on track to balloon to nearly $4 trillion this year after Congress mounted a colossal response to the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year.

Vought has also repeatedly drawn the ire of Democrats for stonewalling congressional oversight demands and subpoenas for testimony and information.

During a House Budget Committee hearing in February, Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) asked Vought to pledge transparency in how OMB manipulates federal dollars, in addition to a promise that OMB will adhere to federal budget laws.

“Now, when American lives and livelihoods depend on the effectiveness of the federal government and the proper implementation of fiscal policy, it is critical that Director Vought honor his commitments,” Yarmuth said in a statement on Monday. “I will honor my promise to hold him to his word.”

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Democrats seek to curb White House spending powers after Ukraine, border wall disputes

Top House Democrats unveiled a bill Wednesday that would rein in what they see as the Trump administration’s abuse of congressional spending powers in its Ukraine aid freeze and diversion of federal cash to the border wall.

The Congressional Power of the Purse Act would bolster transparency requirements around the executive branch‘s use of federal funding and increase penalties for violations of budget law, which already curbs the administration’s authority to alter congressionally appropriated funds.

Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill. Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to introduce companion legislation in the upper chamber.

Democrats say the measure, which has been in the works for months, follows what they view as a series of abuses by the administration to withhold or redirect appropriated money to further the president’s personal interests and policy goals.

That includes President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency last year to free up billions of dollars for a border wall, his freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine last summer and efforts to scrap billions of dollars in foreign aid, among other actions.

“Over the past year and a half, the House Budget Committee has worked to hold this administration accountable for its systemic abuse of budget and appropriations law and degradation of our democratic principles,” Yarmuth said in a statement. “This legislation will add teeth to budget law and further empower Congress to take a stand against Administrations that disregard our Constitution.”

In January, the Government Accountability Office determined the administration broke the law by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars to Ukraine last summer — a move that prompted House Democrats' impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged the aid for political favors. The Office of Management and Budget disagreed with GAO's ruling.

OMB officials did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation. The Trump administration has so far rejected any congressional attempts to curtail its decisions around federal money.

The new legislation would expedite the GAO‘s ability to obtain information during investigations of federal budget law violations. It would also allow GAO to sue more quickly if funds are improperly withheld. Federal officials found in violation of the law could be fired or suspended without pay.

The bill would place an “expiration date” on any national emergency declarations, and the administration wouldn’t be able to rescind federal funding without congressional approval. And OMB would have to make public any decisions to slow or withhold federal funds.

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Trump halt to WHO funding violates same law as Ukraine aid freeze, House Democrats say

President Donald Trump's halt to World Health Organization funding is illegal and violates the same federal spending laws as the Ukraine aid freeze that partly prompted his impeachment, House Democrats said on Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s decision is “dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged," without elaborating on what specific action might be taken.

But a senior administration official contended that language in the most recent spending bill for the State Department and other foreign aid programs gives Trump “broad discretion” in spending money allocated to WHO, including a possible redirection of the health organization’s funding to other international causes after the administration completes a review of the funds in two to three months. Trump announced the review at the same time he said WHO funding would be halted.

House Democrats for months have homed in on the administration’s efforts to slow, halt or redirect dollars appropriated by Congress to satisfy Trump’s personal policy priorities, and they said this is another example.

They said a decision issued by the Government Accountability Office in January also applies to Trump’s action against WHO, which receives $400 million from the U.S. each year. The U.S. is the world’s largest contributor to the organization, which operates on a $4.8 billion annual budget.

GAO concluded that Trump broke the law when he paused hundreds of millions of dollars in critical military aid to Ukraine last summer, declaring that the president can't “substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.“

Democrats said Trump is breaking that law again. “In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States’ assessed contribution to the World Health Organization,” he said. “Moreover, refusing to fund the WHO is a foolish step that only weakens international tools to fight this pandemic and future global health emergencies.“

But a senior administration official pointed to language included in fiscal 2020 appropriations law requiring that the administration spend the money on “necessary expenses, not otherwise provided for, to meet annual obligations of membership in international multilateral organizations.” The language doesn’t specify that the dollars must flow to WHO, the official said.

“We believe that pursuant to the appropriation, we have broad discretion to spend that money,” the administration official said.

Trump announced on Tuesday night that he’ll hit pause on the health organization’s funding for 60 to 90 days while his administration reviews the group’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, accusing WHO of bungling the response and failing to communicate the disease’s threat.

Similarly, the administration said it paused $400 million in military aid to Ukraine last summer while it conducted a “policy review,” with administration officials saying that they wanted to ensure other countries are contributing their fair share to the Eastern European region.

In January, GAO concluded that the president can’t withhold funds for a policy reason because it’s a violation of the Impoundment Control Act, a 1974 law that sharply curbs the executive branch’s authority to alter congressionally appropriated funds. The report undercut an oft-stated defense of Trump’s decision to hold the aid back: that it was a lawful exercise of the president’s authority.

“We disagree with GAO’s opinion,” OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said at the time. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law.”

On Wednesday, the senior administration official argued that how the White House manipulates funding for WHO is an entirely separate issue.

Many Republican lawmakers have matched Trump's criticisms of WHO over the past few weeks, accusing the organization of taking a deferential posture to the Chinese government, calling for investigations into the group’s pandemic response and demanding the resignation of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“The current WHO leadership has proven to be incompetent and shown overwhelming evidence of China bias,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid, tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Cutting off funding to the WHO at this time is the right move.”

Others, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the need for reform while stressing that a funding freeze could cause more harm than good as the coronavirus continues its global spread.

“The Chamber supports a reformed but functional World Health Organization, and U.S. leadership and involvement are essential to ensuring its transparency and accountability going forward,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs for the Chamber, in a statement.

“However, cutting the WHO’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world — in their response.”

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