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Lawmakers struggle to reconcile spending bill before deadline

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Congress must pass a spending bill by Dec. 22 to avoid a government shutdown. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON — A promised year-end deal to protect the young immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation collapsed Wednesday as Republicans in Congress — fresh off passage of their tax plan — prepared to punt nearly all remaining must-do agenda items into the new year.

Congressional leaders still hope that before leaving town this week they can pass an $81 billion disaster-relief package with recovery funds for California wildfires and Gulf Coast states hit during the devastating hurricane season. But passage even of that relatively popular measure remained in doubt as conservatives balked at the price tag.

Rather than finish the year wrapping up the legislative agenda, the GOP majorities in the House and Senate struggled over their next steps.

Congressional leaders had hoped to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program — known as CHIP, which provides insurance for some 9 million children and prenatal care for roughly 370,000 expectant mothers nationwide — and pass measures to stabilize the Affordable Care Act. Instead, they appeared resigned by the end of the day to simply avoiding a government shutdown Friday by extending into mid-January the deadline for passing money bills and picking up the legislative battles in 2018.

Wednesday, Sens. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee, and Sen. Susan Collins said in a joint statement, “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.”

The funding uncertainty is causing states to limit or freeze their CHIP enrollment and notify parents what to do if they lose coverage.

Twenty of the 25 states cited by Georgetown, including California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Washington, have already received nearly $1.2 billion in emergency funding to keep their programs running.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged Wednesday that he would bring a bill to the Senate floor for a vote that included a DACA fix and border security measures if negotiators can “develop a compromise that can be widely supported by both political parties” by the end of January — a promise that leaves him considerable flexibility.

But negotiations to reach a deal have soured in recent days, according to officials involved in the talks. In a meeting with key senators, White House chief of staff John F. Kelly outlined a wish list of immigration law changes that Trump wanted in exchange for backing a DACA replacement. It included strict limits on new arrivals and went beyond the border security measures both sides already had largely agreed to.

Democrats, although they are the minority party in both houses, have leverage because many conservative Republicans in the House refuse to vote for spending bills, meaning GOP leaders must rely on Democrats to pass them. In the Senate, spending bills require 60 votes, so the GOP needs the cooperation of at least eight Democrats.

Meantime, Republicans scrambled to figure out a way forward on the spending and disaster bills, huddling in a basement strategy session late into the evening after celebrating passage of the tax bill at the White House.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was hoping enough Democrats would join Republicans to approve disaster funds, which include $4.4 billion for California in the aftermath of wildfires.

“If you look what’s in [it] for California, it’s very strong,” he told reporters.

The spending bill would probably be voted on separately from the disaster bill. It would provide a simple continuation of funds for the next few weeks, without the beefed-up Defense money Republicans wanted or the policy measures Democrats pushed for, including renewal of CHIP.

Also set aside, for now, were votes on measures to stabilize Obamacare sought by Collins as part of negotiations for her support on the tax bill.

Collins, however, said that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan called her Wednesday and told her the House “remains committed to passing legislation to provide for high-risk pools and other reinsurance mechanisms similar to the bipartisan legislation I have introduced.”

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