August 18, 2018
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Spending plan remains unsettled as clock ticks toward shutdown deadline

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
Lights illuminate the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
By Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner, The Washington Post

With the clock ticking Tuesday toward a shutdown deadline, Congress has yet to chart a clear path toward keeping the federal government open past Thursday.

The House is set to vote Tuesday evening on a spending bill that would fund military funding through September at boosted levels but leave other agencies running on fumes until March. That plan, however, would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats are holding out for a matching increase in nondefense spending, and a bill that emerges from that chamber could have trouble passing the House.

The only solution to the puzzle could be a broad, bipartisan agreement that increases both defense and nondefense spending though 2019 — a deal that has been in the works for months but has been repeatedly derailed by immigration and other issues.

Senate leaders of both parties expressed optimism Tuesday morning that an agreement was within reach. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said talks are “continuing to progress toward an agreement,” and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, said the two sides were “closer to an agreement than we have ever been.”

“Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear,” Schumer said. “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.”

But if the parties cannot reach an agreement in the next two days, it is wholly 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-Georgia, 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 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 spending 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 Thursday midnight deadline.

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-Alabama, 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.

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-Maryland, 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 forcing a three-day government shutdown last month in an unsuccessful attempt to gain protections for dreamers, Senate Democrats seem to have little appetite to repeat the experience. They voted to reopen the government after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, agreed to allow immigration legislation to be debated on the Senate floor and remain satisfied with that commitment.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, on Tuesday accused Democrats of holding a two-year budget deal hostage for “completely unrelated items that have nothing to do with funding the government.”

Four months into the 2018 fiscal year, Congress has already passed four continuing resolutions that keep government agencies running on last year’s budget levels. The situation particularly infuriates defense hawks, who argue the Pentagon is being deprived of necessary resources.

The negotiations have been prompted due to 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 including 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 around 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 both Republicans and Democrats.

The branch of the Health and Human Services Department that oversees this funding has been meting out short-term grants so that none of the clinics has been expected to run short of money through March. But after that, federal officials had been anticipating, 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 so-called 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.

The Washington Post writers Amy Goldstein and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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