WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators struggled to finalize a $1.3 trillion spending bill to keep the government running, with several thorny issues such as health care and immigration still unresolved ahead of an end-of-week deadline.
Despite hopes of reaching a deal Monday, leaders had not wrapped up the bill as of Tuesday morning. The “omnibus” spending bill spreads billions of dollars across all agencies of government and the Monday release would have allowed time for passage through the House and Senate before a government shutdown deadline at midnight Friday.
“We’re trying to get to agreement,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the House Rules Committee. “And this is where it’s really good to measure three times and saw once.”
With conservatives expected to oppose the massive spending bill that funds the government for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, through Sept. 30, Democratic votes will be needed in both chambers to pass the legislation. That empowered Democrats to make demands on a variety of issues while resisting GOP priorities.
Overall, the legislation will bestow generous increases on domestic agencies and the military, following passage of a deal last month setting top-line government-wide budget numbers for this year and next. Longtime bipartisan congressional priorities such as the National Institutes of Health are expected to see significant increases, and greater funding is even expected for the IRS to help implement the new GOP tax law, after years of Republicans trying to slash the agency’s budget.
“I have not heard anything from any of my colleagues that would give me a whole lot of hope that there will be conservative wins,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
The government has shut down briefly two times this year, but there was widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that Congress would act in time to stave off a third shutdown this weekend.
Health care remained a sticking point, as Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Lamar Alexander, Tenn., pushed for inclusion of provisions aimed at lowering premiums for people purchasing health insurance in the Affordable Care Act’s individual marketplace. President Donald Trump spoke with Collins and Alexander on a conference call Saturday and offered his support for their efforts, but a partisan dispute over abortion funding looked poised to derail the push.
House Republicans left a meeting to discuss the pending legislation late Monday with the understanding that the health-care provisions would not be included, several lawmakers said. In addition to the dispute over abortion language, GOP lawmakers were reluctant to sign off on provisions that shored up the Affordable Care Act, a law they all opposed.
“Nobody in that room voted for Obamacare, so the idea you’re going to vote for billions of dollars to stabilize a system you never supported in the first place – pretty hard to choke down,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
On another front, it was looking unlikely that a deal could be made on immigration. The White House had been exploring trading border-wall funding for a temporary extension of protections for those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
But congressional appropriators have recommended only $1.6 billion in border-security funding for a tightly restricted set of infrastructure improvements. Barring a deal, the Trump administration cannot move forward in any significant way with the wall, the president’s top immigration priority.
The White House continued pushing through the weekend for more funding – $25 billion in exchange for extending DACA through September 2020 – according to two congressional aides familiar with the talks. But Democrats, who are seeking a permanent resolution to the issue, rejected that offer.
“There’s not going to be DACA language in the bill. If there is, I’ve never heard a word of it. Not one syllable. If there’s a DACA fix out there, I haven’t seen it,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
Another issue at play was a fix for a provision in the tax law that inadvertently favored farmer-owned cooperatives over agriculture corporations, allowing a substantially larger write-off for sales to cooperatives. Farm-state lawmakers had been pushing for a solution to be made part of the spending bill, but congressional aides said Monday it probably would not be included.
The spending bill has also sparked a fight between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., over funding for a costly rail project between Manhattan and New Jersey that Trump has been urging Republicans to oppose. Resolution of that issue looked possible, though it remained uncertain exactly how it would play out.
But a push to change Capitol Hill’s system for reporting and adjudicating complaints of sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement hit a roadblock after Republicans resisted including the policy language in the spending legislation.
A handful of other issues also remained outstanding, including a campaign finance provision sought by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to loosen federal restrictions on fundraising by political parties and a provision exempting minor league baseball players from federal labor laws.
“I’d say the most frequently used term would be ‘on the table,’ ” said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., as he left the House GOP conference meeting late Monday, referring to the overall uncertainty surrounding the bill hours before it was supposed to be made public.
On the health-care issue, Collins and Alexander left an hour-long meeting with McConnell earlier Monday blaming Democrats’ abortion objections for the impasse.
Collins, one of the few Republican supporters of abortion rights in the Senate, said she was surprised by the opposition. “I really don’t understand why there are some who are hung up on that issue, and I say that as someone who has a very good record on choice issues from the perspective of the pro-choice groups,” she said.
The health-care deal would have fulfilled commitments that Trump and McConnell had previously made to Collins. Collins cited those commitments when she voted in favor of the tax bill last year.
The parameters Collins and Alexander discussed in the Saturday call with Trump would have provided $30 billion over three years to allow states to set up high-risk pools for people with expensive health claims. The deal also would have restarted the “cost-sharing reduction” payments made to insurers under the ACA but ended by Trump in the fall. Those payments would have been made retroactively and continued for three years.
The abortion dispute is one that has flared on other health-related pieces of legislation, too. While federal funds cannot be spent on abortions, under the status quo – rules set out in the ACA and an executive order issued by President Barack Obama – insurers are free to offer plans that cover abortions and use segregated nonfederal funds to pay any abortion-related claims.
Under the proposed Republican approach, according to a GOP aide familiar with the plan, insurers could not use the stabilization funds to subsidize any plan that offers abortion coverage – whether or not the insurer uses the federal funds to pay for any specific claims. Republicans viewed the provision as adhering to the long-standing Hyde Amendment – a 40-year-old appropriations restriction that prevents federal funding for abortions – but Democrats viewed it as an impermissible expansion of abortion restrictions.
The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.
The office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has partnered with Alexander on bipartisan health legislation, said in a statement Monday: “Sen. Murray is disappointed that Republicans are rallying behind a new partisan bill that includes a last-minute, harmful restriction on abortion coverage for private insurance companies instead of working with Democrats to wrap up what have been bipartisan efforts to reduce health care costs.”
On the health-care issue, Collins and Alexander left an hour-long meeting with McConnell on Monday afternoon saying the issue remained unresolved, and they blamed Democrats’ abortion objections for the impasse.
Alexander said the language could still be added to the spending bill in either the House or the Senate, and he suggested lawmakers of all parties should be willing to support legislation aimed at bringing down health-care costs, especially in an election year. But Collins said there was little space for further negotiations with Democrats.
“That probably has had the most discussion of any language in the bill, and I think what we have come up with is not going to be a major change in policy in any way,” she said.