by Erik Wasson
Republican attempts to cobble together a comprehensive $1.2 trillion spending bill remained stalled Tuesday, pushing House and Senate votes on the package closer to a deadline at the end of the work week to keep the government operating.
Lawmakers, who’ve had more than a month to work out the details of a budget agreement aimed at ending a cycle of stopgap measures, blew past another target to finish their work as disagreements persisted over immigration, border security, tax breaks and a tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.
Current government funding expires at the end of the day Friday. House Republicans emerged from a morning meeting saying a vote in the House had been pushed to Thursday.
John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, told reporters a short-term stopgap spending measure may be needed to allow the Senate to vote on the bill over the weekend. Any disruption in the process risks triggering a temporary shutdown of government operations.
“We’ll be here this weekend,” he said. “We’ll do whatever is necessary to keep the lights on.”
Wall and Tunnel
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told his colleagues that decisions still hadn’t been made on whether to fund President Donald Trump’s border wall or to provide $900 million for the Hudson rail project, known as Gateway, which Trump opposes. Ryan said he hopes to release the thousand-page piece of legislation before midnight Tuesday night.
"What will it take to get this done? Exhaustion," said Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told reporters there are 20 to 30 policy disagreements still to be resolved before the new deadline to release the text of the bill.
New York Democratic Representative Nita Lowey accused Republicans of trying to add in multiple provisions that they know will be rejected by Democrats. “They could just drop all their poison pills and we can get on with it," she said.
Lowey said she is concerned that funding for the Hudson River project may be left out of the bill even though House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, is one of the lawmakers pushing to finance it.
Peter King, a New York Republican who also supports the Gateway project, said the issue is still being worked on.
Congress has been at loggerheads with the White House over Gateway, which would provide a crucial rail link between New York and New Jersey. The project would supplement a decaying century-old tunnel damaged by saltwater flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That tunnel provides the only direct train link between New Jersey and Manhattan for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, and helps bind the entire Northeast corridor to the New York area.
Trump has told Ryan and other lawmakers he doesn’t want it in the spending bill. His objection is in part because New York’s Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, had held up the nomination of several of Trump’s nominees, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also is known to have reservations about sinking a lot of money into the project.
The spending bill, known as the omnibus, would increase funding for the military by $80 billion and on domestic programs by $63 billion over previous budget limits as set out in the bipartisan budget agreement that ended a February shutdown. In addition to the $1.2 trillion that was part of the February agreement, the military would also receive $71 billion in war funds not subject to budget caps. The higher spending for non-defense programs was the price Democrats demanded in the face of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal to cut domestic levels by $54 billion.
Disputes over border security and immigration have repeatedly stymied agreements in Congress. Democrats have tried to link financing for Trump’s wall at the Mexican border to protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The president has demanded other changes in immigration law in return. The White House has floated temporary protection in exchange for about $25 billion in wall funding during the talks over the bill, an offer Democrats have rejected.
One potential solution to the standoff may be skipping changes to immigration law and using the $1.6 billion allocated for a wall in the original draft legislation for wider border security.
Several other provisions that had been sought by some lawmakers are being left out or remain unresolved.
Ryan told members that the spending measure, which would finance the government through the end of September, won’t include a provision to stabilize Obamacare costs after Democrats balked at anti-abortion restrictions, lawmakers said.
The health-care provision had been sought by Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine, who argued that premiums for health insurance purchased on Obamacare markets could be 40 percent lower if Congress passes the package than they would be under the status quo.
Cornyn said earlier this week that he was expecting the final spending measure to include his bill to tighten reporting into the national database for background checks of gun buyers. However, a Republican lawmaker, who asked for anonymity to discuss negotiations, said no gun measures are included in the House measure.
Also unresolved is whether to include a revision to the tax law passed in December to change tax breaks for agricultural grain cooperatives. The tax breaks are opposed by grain companies. Oklahoma Republican Representative Frank Lucas said he was still fighting to get that provision in and opposing an effort to have a separate vote on it. "That would be bad policy, we need to get this done now," he said.
A related push by Representative Kristi Noem, a South Dakota Republican, to impose an Internet sales tax has failed, the congresswoman said in an interview.
Lawmakers may have to pass another stopgap spending bill, because as the Friday deadline nears, a senator could hold the floor long enough to cause a brief shutdown. That’s what Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky did last month, causing an overnight shutdown until Congress passed a spending bill before dawn.
The GOP agenda has been rapidly thinning out, raising the possibility that the spending bill will be the last major legislation to clear Congress before this year’s congressional election, when Republicans are at risk of losing control of both the House and Senate.
The bill is expected to carry temporary extensions of the National Flood Insurance Program, a program that allows foreigners who invest in U.S. projects to gain legal residency, and Federal Aviation Administration fee collection activities. In addition to the gun-buyer database provision, it is also likely to carry an increase in school safety funding.
--With assistance from Sahil Kapur and Laura Litvan.
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