Crush of tough issues could bring about government shutdown
WASHINGTON — An early December government shutdown is a real possibility, since a divided Congress can't agree on military spending, Democrats insist on help for young immigrants and President Donald Trump's position can change with each lawmaker he talks to.
Most of Washington is focused on overhauling the nation's tax code, but lawmakers face a combustible mix of must-do and could-do items, with the current government spending bill set to expire Dec. 8. On the list are immigration and a U.S.-Mexico border wall; an impasse over children's health care; pent-up demand for budget increases for the Pentagon and domestic agencies; and tens of billions of dollars in hurricane aid.
There's plenty at stake for Republicans controlling Washington. Politically, there's an urgency to avoid a debilitating shutdown just as the GOP hopes to wrap up an overhaul of the tax code that is its top priority. And legions of GOP defense hawks are adamant that the Pentagon receive a huge 2018 budget hike approaching $80-90 billion. Trump and many followers want the U.S.-Mexico wall.
Democrats retain considerable power in the endgame — their votes are needed — and are pressing demands of their own. They want protections for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as young children. They also demand budget increases for domestic agencies.
"I think we're headed in a good direction on the spending caps," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Monday. "I don't know that will get to immigration this year but that's a pretty easy thing to settle if the Democrats will give the president some of what he wants. I think he would be willing to be pretty forward-leaning on kids who were brought to the country illegally."
For his part, Trump tends to waver depending on the situation — siding with Democrats on a debt deal in September, and promising Republicans last week that the controversial immigration issue won't be part of the year-end spending measure.
Meanwhile, the tax debate is taking up energy, time and political capital, and GOP leaders seem reluctant to issue controversial decisions that might harm its chances.
A rundown of non-tax issues facing Congress and Trump:
Ideally, top leaders in both parties would like to agree on new spending levels and pass a catchall bill by the Dec. 8 deadline. That's looking increasingly unlikely. Another temporary funding bill would be needed to avert a government shutdown, but many Democrats say they won't be able to support any measure that doesn't include help for so-called "Dreamer" immigrants facing deportation. That increases the odds of a shutdown.
Congressional leaders are conducting secret talks on raising the spending levels and say they are optimistic about a deal. But there's no sign of one yet. A possible agreement could add perhaps $100 billion to the budget for the current year alone, which is sure to cause sticker shock among the GOP's fiscal conservatives. Trump's demands for the border wall — a nonstarter with Democrats — could spark a shutdown battle.
Then there's aid to areas devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The White House promises to submit a request later this month for "several tens of billions of dollars" aimed mostly at helping Texas and Florida. That's likely to bring the total appropriated since September for hurricane relief to more than $100 billion, which is likely to rankle deficit hawks.
Trump announced in September that he is ending temporary deportation protections granted by the Obama administration to young immigrants known as "Dreamers" who were illegally brought into the U.S. and often have known no other home. But he gave Congress until March to come up with a fix and promised top Democratic leaders he would sign legislation protecting them, so long as he wins billions for border security.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Senate Democrats, such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, are demanding the immigration issue be addressed as soon as possible and won't vote for any spending bill that fails to include a solution. That could doom the spending bill as Republicans need Democratic votes to pass the measure. Top Democrats such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are keeping their powder dry in hopes that negotiations, which presently appear stalled, pick up steam.
The reauthorization of an expired children's health program is becoming more urgent as the lapse in the program will mean a cutoff in services in Arizona, California, Minnesota, Ohio and other states by late December or January.
There's a bipartisan desire to extend the program, but negotiations over how to pay for the measure have yet to produce a breakthrough. A compromise ultimately appears likely, and the measure is a candidate to be coupled with other items in December.
House and Senate negotiators are putting the final touches on an annual defense policy bill for the 2018 fiscal year that's expected to increase the Pentagon's core budget by billions of dollars more than the $603 billion Trump requested.
There's some urgency to the talks since Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer.
The defense policy bill is expected to expand U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's advancing nuclear weapons programs. Lawmakers also are trying to resolve a long simmering debate over the creation of a new branch that would be in charge of the U.S. military's space assets.
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