By Mike Debonis and Erica Werner, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON – Congressional leaders moved toward another short-term spending stopgap Wednesday after talks aimed at passing more-ambitious legislation appeared to collapse as a government shutdown deadline approached.
Republicans have pushed for increased military funding and disaster aid for hurricane-ravaged communities in the South. Democrats, meanwhile, want a boost to domestic programs and a solution for young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
But with a midnight-Friday shutdown deadline looming, not to mention the coming holidays, GOP leaders in the House and Senate indicated that lawmakers were likely to do the bare minimum – passing another short-term spending bill to keep the government open and then revisiting all these issues in January.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s got to get wrapped up and loose threads out there that have to be tied together at some point, and if we end up having to do that all in the first two weeks of January, I guess that’s what we’ll end up doing,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate.
The path to passing a stopgap remained unclear late Wednesday, however. House Republicans met behind closed doors for more than an hour, airing frustrations over the spending legislation just hours after they sent a landmark GOP tax overhaul to President Trump. They emerged without a clear plan to proceed.
“There’s not enough votes to get it done right now,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
The main roadblock came from advocates of increased military spending, who are frustrated that House Republican leaders abandoned plans to pass a bill delivering more than $600 billion in full-year defense funding after it became clear it could not pass the Senate.
Instead, leaders said they would continue current funding levels through Jan. 19, plus several billion dollars in extra funding to address “anomalies” in the defense budget. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told lawmakers the plan had the blessing of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but that assurance fell short for many.
“You can’t fix a systemic problem with anomalies,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
One potential land mine, however, was defused Wednesday afternoon when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine – who had conditioned her vote for the tax bill on the separate passage of two health-care provisions – agreed to withdraw her demand that the health-care provisions get attached to the year-end spending legislation.
That demand had threatened to provoke a confrontation with House Republicans, who oppose the health bills that would pay subsidies to insurers that participate in the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplaces.
“Rather than considering a broad year-end funding agreement as we expected, it has become clear that Congress will only be able to pass another short-term extension to prevent a government shutdown and to continue a few essential programs,” Collins said in a joint statement with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Few Republicans showed any stomach for a spending showdown at Christmas, especially after delivering the tax bill – even though GOP appropriators and defense hawks balked at the prospect of another stopgap.
“I can’t think of a bigger act of political malpractice after a successful tax reform vote than to shut the government down,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs. “Talk about stepping on your own message. I mean, how dumb would that be?”
Other lawmakers characterized the 11th-hour wrangling as business as usual for the restive House GOP: “It’s going to get a little dirty before it gets clean,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
Several top House Republican leaders said early Wednesday that they were planning to put multiple spending bills on the House floor – a stopgap to keep government operating past Friday, as well as an $81 billion disaster-relief package. GOP leaders dropped plans to combine the two bills after some conservatives complained about the size of the disaster package.
The strategy, aides said, is meant in part to keep the Senate from taking a House bill, attaching the health-care bills or other legislation that conservatives oppose, and sending it back to the House.
The fate of a critical surveillance program that allows the government to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil also hangs on the spending negotiations, after House Republicans abandoned plans to vote on a bill that would have extended the program, with certain restrictions, for eight years. That measure, too, remained in flux late Wednesday.
Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus have demanded more restrictions to how law enforcement officers can access the data collected under the program, known as Section 702, to protect the privacy of Americans’ whose information might be in the surveillance database.
Democrats represent a key piece of the puzzle because no spending bill can pass the Senate without at least some Democratic votes.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled anew Wednesday that Democrats would not agree to anything beyond a bare-bones stopgap as long as there was no bipartisan agreement on spending, immigration and other sensitive issues.
That spelled a likely end to any attempt by McConnell to add the health-care legislation at Collins’s behest because some Democrats would have to support the move for it to overcome a 60-vote Senate procedural hurdle.
“We cannot do a short-term funding bill that picks and chooses what problems to solve,” Schumer said. “That will not be fair and will not pass. We have to do them all together, instead of in a piecemeal fashion.”
He added: “Whether that global deal comes before the week is out or at a later date in January, it has to be a truly global deal. We can’t leave any of those issues behind.”
Another encouraging sign for spending talks came as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that he would allow a vote on a bipartisan immigration plan if a deal materializes in the coming days. Democrats and Republicans have struggled for weeks to craft a solution to protect “dreamers,” or the children of young immigrants, who are set to lose their protections when an Obama-era program ends in early March.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., whose support for the GOP tax plan was contingent on the success of the immigration talks, said he and other senators were working on a plan with the White House that should be completed by the end of the year. If that happens, McConnell said he would hold “a free-standing vote” on the plan by the end of January.
Flake said he would prefer to see it added to the spending legislation, but “if it’s a stand-alone, that’s fine. We’ll have the votes for it.”