Tue | Oct 23, 2018

House, Senate action needed to avert another government shutdown

Published:Wednesday | March 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Trump

Battles over priorities in a huge government-wide spending bill are essentially settled, leaving a scaled-back plan for President Donald Trump's border wall and a huge rail project that pits Trump against Capitol Hill's most powerful Democrat as the top issues to be solved.

The measure would provide major funding increases for the Pentagon - $80 billion over current limits - bringing the military budget to $700 billion and giving GOP defence hawks a long-sought victory. Domestic accounts would get a generous 10 per cent increase on average as well, awarding Democrats funding wins that eluded them during the Obama administration.

"We made a promise to the country that we would rebuild our military. Ageing equipment, personnel shortages, training lapses, maintenance lapses - all of this has cost us," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "With this week's critical funding bill we will begin to reverse that damage."

Efforts to tackle politically charged immigration issues and rapidly rising health insurance premiums appeared to be faltering.

An effort to extend protections for so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to the country illegally appears to have failed. Democrats seemed likely to yield on $1.6 billion in wall funding for older designs as outlined in Trump's official request for the 2018 budget year, but they were digging in against Trump's plans to hire hundreds of new immigration agents.

A dispute over abortion seemed likely to scuttle a Senate GOP plan to provide billions in federal subsidies to insurers to help curb health insurance premium increases.

Sen Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, was working on Trump's behalf against funding for a Hudson River tunnel and rail project that's important to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Republicans from New York and New Jersey.

House and Senate action is needed by midnight Friday to avert another government shutdown.

budget cuts

The bill would implement last month's budget agreement, adding $143 billion over limits set under a 2011 budget and debt pact that forced automatic budget cuts on annual agency appropriations. Coupled with last year's tax cuts, it heralds the return of trillion-dollar budget deficits as soon as the budget year starting in October.

Republican conservatives are dismayed by the free-spending measure, meaning Democratic votes are required to pass it. That gave Democrats leverage to force GOP negotiators to drop numerous policy riders that Democrats considered poison pills.

"We've had at least 100 that we've taken out," said Vermont Sen Patrick Leahy, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Democrats touted a $3-billion package to fight the nation's opioid addiction epidemic. More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for training, security measures, and treatment for the mentally ill.

Ryan said negotiations are ongoing about adding a widely backed measure that aims to strengthen the federal background checks by prodding states to provide all records that disqualify people with severe mental health problems and other issues from buying firearms.

Republicans continued to press to fix a glitch in the recent tax bill that subsidizes grain sales to cooperatives at the expense of for-profit grain companies, lawmakers said.

"We need to fix that problem," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The president, meanwhile, has privately threatened to veto the whole package if a $900-million payment is made on the Hudson River Gateway Project, a priority for Schumer. Trump's opposition is alarming Northeastern Republicans such as Rep Peter King of New York, who lobbied Trump on the project at a St Patrick's luncheon in the Capitol last week.

The Gateway Project would add an $11-billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River to complement deteriorating, century-old tunnels that are at risk of closing in a few years. The project enjoys bipartisan support among key Appropriations panel negotiators on the omnibus measure who want to get the expensive project on track while their coffers are flush with money.

AP