WASHINGTON >> Buoyed by encouraging prospects of a budget pact, lawmakers today appeared increasingly likely to avoid a repeat of last month’s government shutdown — though President Donald Trump unexpectedly raised the possibility of closing things down again if he can’t have his way on immigration.
“I’d love to see a shutdown if we can’t get this stuff taken care of,” Trump declared. And then he repeated that sentiment several more times.
Trump’s comments came out of left field as Senate leaders closed in on a longer-term agreement on legislation to award whopping spending increases to both the Pentagon and domestic federal programs as well as to pass overdue disaster relief money and, perhaps, crucial legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit and avoid possible default.
Democratic leaders appeared no longer intent on linking progress on the budget to protections for younger “Dreamer” immigrants who were brought to the country as children and are here illegally. Instead, the Democrats prepared to reap tens of billions of dollars for the party’s domestic priorities such as combatting opioids while taking their chances on solving the immigration impasse later.
Meanwhile, the House took up a six-week stopgap spending bill containing increases for the military that long have been demanded by Trump and his GOP allies. But the measure appeared increasingly likely to be rewritten by the Senate to include legislation implementing the brewing budget pact.
The budget negotiations, conducted chiefly by the Senate’s top leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Chuck Schumer of New York, have intensified in recent days — and the looming government shutdown at midnight Thursday added urgency to the talks. They met this morning in an effort to bring the talks toward closure, with Schumer reporting “real progress.”
“I think we’re on the way to getting an agreement and getting it very soon,” said McConnell.
Prospects for dealing with immigration, however, were as fuzzy as ever. The Senate is slated next week to begin a debate to address the dilemma of immigrants left vulnerable by the looming expiration of former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The broader budget picture is one in which GOP defense hawks are prevailing over the party’s depleted ranks of deficit hawks while Democrats leverage their influence to increase spending for domestic priorities such as combating opioid misuse.
The result could be the return of trillion-dollar deficits for the first time since Obama’s first term.
The stopgap spending bill would keep the government open through March 23 to allow time to write and pass detailed follow-up “omnibus” legislation to fund the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
The prospective longer-term budget agreement would give both the Pentagon and domestic agencies relief from a budget freeze that lawmakers say threatens military readiness and training as well as domestic priorities such as combating opioid abuse and repairing the government’s troubled health care system for veterans.
The temporary funding measure would also reauthorize funding for community health centers, which enjoy widespread bipartisan support.
Aides in both parties said the budget measure may also contain a provision to raise the government’s $20.5 trillion borrowing cap. Legislation to increase the debt ceiling is always a headache, especially for House GOP leaders whose rank and file hate such votes. Schumer said addressing the debt ceiling is an option for now but not a sure thing.
Another likely addition is more than $80 billion in long-overdue hurricane relief for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, a top priority of lawmakers in both parties.
Under Congress’ arcane ways, a broad-brush agreement to increase legally binding spending “caps” — which would otherwise keep the budgets for the military and domestic agencies essentially frozen — would be approved, then followed by a far more detailed catchall spending bill that would takes weeks to negotiate.
It’s clear that Senate Democrats have no appetite for another government shutdown. Their unity splintered during last month’s three-day closure.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had linked progress on the budget with action to address the immigration program, but other Democrats are beginning to agitate for delinking the two, lest the opportunity for a budget pact be lost.
Schumer said that he and Pelosi are “working from the same page,” appearing to discount speculation that she might oppose the looming pact.
Details are closely held and subject to change. But at issue is a two-year deal to increase caps on spending set by a failed 2011 budget deal. Republicans have pushed for defense increases in the neighborhood of $80 billion a year and have offered Democrats nearly as much — $60 billion or so per year — for nondefense programs.
Add in $80 billion to $90 billion worth of hurricane aid for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, health care funding and money for President Donald Trump’s border security plan, and the final tally could total close to $400 billion. The potential cost, over the 2018-19 budget years, would rival the deficit impact of last year’s tax measure over that period.