The deadline to keep the federal government open is just about here, but a deal is far from done.
With just five workdays left until government funding expires, lawmakers return next week to all the same sticking points that have made full-year funding so elusive and now threaten a government shutdown.
Working down to the wire on a spending package is nothing new for the modern Congress. And the odds are against a funding lapse. But both parties see the must-pass funding bill as leverage to secure their priorities, making the situation dicey.
It’s President Donald Trump’s first chance to put his imprint on the federal budget, and the White House is eager to deliver on campaign-trail promises including higher defense spending and curbing illegal immigration. Still, it’s unclear how hard the administration and GOP lawmakers will push. A government shutdown would begin on Trump’s 100th day in office and Republicans are desperate to show they can govern after their failed push to repeal Obamacare.
Newly energized Democrats have vowed to oppose Trump’s spending and policy priorities and are making demands of their own. With Democratic votes likely to be needed to pass any funding bill in the House and definitely needed in the Senate, the price of their votes may be concessions to protect Obamacare.
Appropriators from both parties have made progress in negotiations, but aides say legislation to fund the government through September is unlikely to be unveiled before the recess is up. In fact, a one-week extension to give Congress more time to work is increasingly likely, as a slew of thorny political issues remain.
Here are the five biggest obstacles to a deal:
The tallest hurdle may be Trump’s request to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Securing the $1.4 billion down payment would help Trump fulfill a top campaign promise but it’s facing stiff Democratic resistance. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said adding wall funding would be “a loser” — finding few Democratic votes while even losing some Republicans.
In recent days, some administration officials have made clear that the president is not wedded to the idea of a physical wall covering every mile of the border and that some spots could be covered by technological additions like drones. But the White House is also under internal pressure to secure a win and is eyeing a harder line on the issue.
Some Republican appropriators, such as Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), are suggesting a more palatable plan could be to shift some money within the Department of Homeland Security’s budget toward the border. Generally beefing up border security funding might appease the president and still hold onto enough Democratic support to pass the package.
One of the latest threats to a bipartisan accord comes directly from White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
The former conservative GOP lawmaker has been privately urging Republicans to include a provision blocking federal grants for any city that doesn’t enforce federal immigration law. To Democrats, the idea is a nonstarter. But Mulvaney sees it as a chance to get his former House Freedom Caucus colleagues to back the bill, so GOP leaders wouldn’t have to rely on Democratic votes.
The proposal — which could affect more than 300 cities nationwide — has been received coolly, even among some Republicans who fear it could backfire. Senior GOP lawmakers want to keep Mulvaney’s proposal out of the legislation, knowing an attempt to strip funding from so-called sanctuary cities would spur Democrats to abandon talks and put Washington on a path to a shutdown.
While most Democratic lawmakers aren’t completely opposed to the inclusion of extra defense spending, many are wary of the president’s $30 billion supplemental request — especially as long as the White House also seeks $18 billion in cuts to domestic agencies for this fiscal year. That the request is included in the same package as funding for border wall construction has only further complicated prospects for the extra Pentagon cash.
Meanwhile, Republicans have struggled among themselves to reach agreement on just how much defense spending they might include and whether they should give the Pentagon time beyond the end of the fiscal year to spend that money, which would go toward extra weapons procurement, readiness and war-fighting.
The 2010 health care law is again in the middle of a funding fight, but this time, it’s Democrats who are making an issue of it.
Democratic leaders declared that any spending bill must provide money for a key Obamacare subsidy program after Trump threatened to defund the cost-sharing subsidies; the president sees the program as a way to force Democrats to the negotiating table.
Schumer told reporters this week that Democrats are “very hopeful” the payments would be included, but Republicans aren’t exactly eager to pay for the health subsidies, which they have sued to block.
In the wake of last month’s Obamacare repeal meltdown by the House GOP, Republicans are in no mood to further prop up the law. But key health and business lobbies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say GOP leaders may have no choice if they want to prevent an imminent collapse of the individual insurance marketplace. Another option is simply for the Trump administration to continue making the payments and avoid any final decision in the spending bill.
Coal miners’ benefits
Congress was hours away from a government shutdown last fall over a disputed miners’ health care program. Now, the benefits of 16,000 retired workers and federal funding are again on the line.
Democrats and some coal country Republicans have insisted on a long-term solution for the workers’ health care as well as a separate pension fund, but a 10-year fix could cost about $3 billion and is running into opposition among conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation along with House GOP budget hawks.
With coal-friendly Trump in the White House and a handful of key senators up for reelection, aides from both parties say they expect at least a temporary extension of health benefits in any final deal.
That would offer a mostly pain-free way for Trump to deliver on a key promise to his base in the absence of other White House victories in the spending package — even if it also means Washington would be kicking the can once again.