Washington: Congress passed a two-week extension of federal funding that averts a government shutdown this week but defers decisions on spending levels for defence and domestic programs.
The House voted 235 to 193 in favour of the extension on Thursday afternoon followed quickly by the Senate, which passed it 81 to 14. Lawmakers now have until 22 December to settle some larger issues on spending and legislation. At the same time they will be rushing to finish work on tax legislation before leaving Washington for the holidays.
The bill, H.J.Res. 123, passed after leaders of both parties agreed to continue negotiating on larger issues and after House speaker Paul Ryan quelled a rebellion among some conservatives who wanted a longer stopgap bill as part of a strategy to avoid giving concessions to Democrats on spending.
The votes in the House and Senate followed a meeting between top congressional leaders and President Donald Trump at the White House to negotiate a longer-term budget agreement that could raise military and non-defence spending above caps put into place following the 2011 standoff over raising the debt ceiling.
“We hope that we’re going to make some great progress for our country," Trump said in opening the Oval Office meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after returning to the Capitol that while an agreement on spending limits wasn’t reached, “We agreed that we want to resolve all of these issues in the next couple of weeks."
Pelosi and Schumer, in a joint statement, described the White House meeting as “productive. Nothing specific has been agreed to, but discussions continue."
If Trump and the lawmakers can agree on overall budget limits, one option would be to put that into a second short-term spending bill to keep the government open from 22 December into sometime in January. That stopgap measure could be combined with other legislation, including measures shoring up Obamacare insurance markets and extending a children’s health insurance program.
‘The Same Play’
Republican Representative Paul Gosar, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said before the vote that he fears the 22 December deadline will force Republicans into too many concessions to Democrats on spending and policy.
“I’m tired of seeing the same play again and again," he said.
Under the original plan, Congress in January would hash out the remaining details of a trillion-dollar spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year. Lawmakers also are likely to take up raising the nation’s debt limit at the same time.
The ceiling on federal borrowing was suspended in September but snaps back into place on Friday. The Treasury Department has about $250 billion worth of extraordinary measures available to extend the deadline, plus about $80 billion in cash. The Congressional Budget Office has said the Treasury can use those measures through late March or early April.
Ahead of the White House meeting, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats are working in “good faith" toward a year-end deal that meets some of their priorities, including equal boosts in funding for non-defence and defence programs and a measure protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Democrats boycotted a similar gathering last week after Trump tweeted that he didn’t see a deal as being possible. Trump said earlier this week that a government shutdown “could happen" because of Democratic demands.
‘On his shoulders’
Schumer denied that Democrats are eager to force a confrontation.
“If a shutdown happens as the president seemed to be rooting for earlier in his tweet this year, it will fall on his shoulders," he said on the Senate floor Thursday. “His party controls the Senate, the House and the presidency. Nobody here wants a shutdown. We Democrats are not interested in one."
Republicans and Democrats have discussed a potential two-year budget deal raising spending by about $200 billion. A key issue has been whether the $549 billion defence spending cap would be raised by a larger amount than the $516 billion non-defence cap.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus is pushing Ryan to try to force Democrats to accept higher military funding without any increase in domestic funding. It wants to attach the full-year 2018 defence spending bill to the stopgap spending bill that would keep the rest of the government open only until January. The defence measure, H.R. 3219, would give the Defence Department $584.2 billion in discretionary funding and $73.9 billion in war funding — more than the current $522 billion cap for the Pentagon alone.
“Until we get those assurances, we are just kicking a can down the road," said Republican Representative Andy Biggs, a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said GOP lawmakers agreed to go along with a two-week bill after Ryan promised to push Democrats to pass the defence spending bill separately and to keep immigration and payments to Obamacare insurers out of the next stopgap.
Walker said Ryan also committed to seek to include disaster relief spending in the 22 December spending bill, as well as an effort to cut $190 billion in entitlement spending over 10 years through “some kind of work requirement for capable-bodied adults with no dependents." Ryan declined to comment when asked by reporters about the GOP negotiating position. Bloomberg