Spending plan remains unsettled as clock ticks toward shutdown deadline
WASHINGTON - Top Senate leaders said Tuesday that they were approaching a sweeping two-year deal to increase federal spending, which would clear a legislative roadblock that has kept Congress spinning its wheels for months.
Despite the optimism, no final agreement was in hand with less than three days until a Thursday midnight deadline, and even as congressional leaders were projecting optimism, President Donald Trump was raising tensions by openly pondering a shutdown if Democrats did not agree to his immigration plan.
"I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at a White House event focused on the crime threat posed by immigrants. "If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety . . . let's shut it down."
Those comments came at the same time Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., were telling reporters that a breakthrough was at hand - one that would deliver a defense spending boost Trump has long demanded as well as an increase in the nondefense programs championed by Democrats.
"We're on the way to getting an agreement and on the way to getting an agreement very soon," McConnell said. Schumer echoed the optimism moments later: "I am very hopeful that we can come to an agreement, an agreement very soon."
Trump's remarks, at least initially, appeared unlikely to snuff out the negotiations, which mainly involved lawmakers and their aides - not Trump and his White House deputies - and have largely steered clear of the explosive immigration issue.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon that Trump was not pushing for the inclusion of immigration policies in the budget accord - something that would upend the sensitive talks.
"I don't think that we expect the budget deal to include specifics on the immigration reform," she said. "But we want to get a deal on that."
The deal to lift congressional spending caps through 2019 could be the only solution to a legislative puzzle that has already required four temporary spending bills to keep the government open since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1.
The House is set to vote Tuesday evening on a spending bill that would fund the military through September at boosted levels but leave other agencies running on fumes until March. That plan would be amended in the Senate, where Democrats are holding out for a matching increase in nondefense spending.
The agreement McConnell and Schumer are contemplating, with input from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would clear the way for a bipartisan accord that would break through the sharp divides that helped prompt a three-day government shutdown last month.
"Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear," Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "We support an increase in funding for our military and our middle class. The two are not mutually exclusive. We don't want to do just one and leave the other behind."
Among the issues that could be addressed in the deal is an increase in the federal debt limit, which could be reached as soon as early March, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Aides of both parties said that an increase was being discussed in the negotiations but that no final decisions have been made.
"It's a question of what the traffic will bear," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 3 Senate GOP leader, describing the likelihood of a debt-ceiling increase.
If the parties cannot reach an agreement in the next two days, it is unclear how a shutdown might be averted.
Multiple House Republicans said Tuesday that if the Senate takes their spending bill and strips out the increased military funding, they would have trouble voting for it. House Democrats, meanwhile, have showed only limited willingness to help pass temporary spending measures absent a broader agreement.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said passing more-robust military funding is a "key element" for Republican lawmakers.
"We've got to do something to force them to actually do their jobs," he said of senators. "I think it's going to be tough if they send back something that doesn't have the defense funding on it."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Congress should "not let disagreements on domestic policy continue to hold our nation's defense hostage." He warned that a failure to pass long-term funding would imperil troop paychecks, inhibit the maintenance of planes and ships, stunt recruiting and otherwise harm military readiness.
"To carry out the strategy you rightly directed we develop, we need you to pass a budget now," he said.
The House bill would increase Pentagon funding to $584 billion, breaking an existing $549 billion cap for 2018. The military funding would continue through Sept. 30, while the rest of the government would continue to be funded at 2017 levels through March 23.
The bill would also provide two years of funding for the federal community health-center program, which lapsed last year and is at risk of running out of spending authority, and would also extend several other programs.
House Republicans plan to pass the bill and send it to the Senate on Tuesday, then recess for the week so Democrats can head to Maryland's Eastern Shore for their yearly policy retreat. But with the Senate unlikely to swallow the House bill, leaders are advising lawmakers to be prepared to vote again before the deadline at midnight Thursday.
The addition of military funding to the temporary spending bill stands to tamp down resistance from GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, who have pushed fiercely for more Pentagon funding, as well as from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which typically uses its leverage to issue demands around critical votes.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., an Armed Services Committee member, said Monday it would have been "difficult" for Republican leaders to cobble together enough GOP votes for another temporary bill, known as a "continuing resolution."
"One CR after another, at some point you have to say this is not working," he said.
House Democrats blasted the Republicans' move, arguing that a compromise measure could have gotten votes from both parties.
"They don't want to work in a bipartisan fashion, and I think it's the message they've been sending for the last 13 months," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said of Republicans. "They want to do it their way or no way."
Democrats could be forced to curtail their retreat if the Senate, as expected, sends a different bill back to the House. "We'll be here to vote," Hoyer said. "We'll be here to vote if we need to vote."
Still unresolved is the issue of protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors, known as "dreamers."
Negotiations on immigration continue, but after last month's shutdown failed to gain protections for dreamers, Senate Democrats seem to have little appetite to repeat the experience. They voted to reopen the government after McConnell agreed to allow immigration legislation to be debated on the Senate floor, and they remain satisfied with that commitment.
But the terms of that debate, which could begin next week, stand to be a complication. Some Democrats said they wanted further assurances that the debate would not be tilted in Republicans' favor.
"The only thing that could screw this up is, Mitch McConnell made a commitment to a number of Republicans and Democrats that the base bill on immigration would be neutral, and we have to make sure that that is neutral before there's a final sign-off on anything," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
The budget talks have been prompted because of spending caps put into place under a 2011 law, the Budget Control Act, that was intended to enforce fiscal discipline in the Capitol. Under that law, military funding is set to be capped at $549 billion for defense and $519 billion for nondefense in fiscal 2018 - representing in both cases a small cut from the 2017 levels.
Congressional leaders are looking at combined increases of more than $80 billion for 2018 and 2019 but have been squabbling over the precise figures as Democrats have pushed for matching increases for domestic agencies.
If a budget deal is reached this week, the spending committees could get to work writing the actual legislation funding the government through Sept. 30 - setting up another must-pass bill in March.
Passage of that bill would probably get thrown together with several other must-do items awaiting action on Capitol Hill. Those include an $80 billion-plus disaster aid package for victims of last year's deadly hurricanes and wildfires.
The House bill filed Monday would extend for two years the federal funding of about 10,000 community health clinics across the country that serve roughly 27 million low-income patients. The health centers' main source of federal aid expired in September, even though the clinics have long had widespread support among Republicans and Democrats.
The branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees this funding has been meting out short-term grants so that none of the clinics are expected to run short of money through March. But after that, federal officials had been anticipating that 2,800 clinics would need to close, cutting off care to an estimated 9 million patients.
The bill also would affect many other moving parts in the health-care system. It would postpone planned cuts in funding to hospitals that treat an especially large share of poor patients, eliminating reductions in "disproportionate share" payments for this year and 2019 and shifting the $6 billion in reductions to 2021 through 2023.
It would adjust a variety of Medicare reimbursements, including in ways that encourage treatment at home. And it would eliminate plans for federal rules regarding use of electronic health records to become more stringent over time, to make it easier for doctors and other providers of care to comply.
Author information: Erica Werner has worked at The Washington Post since 2017, covering Congress with a focus on economic policy. Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.