Border wall, tunnel tussle hold up sweeping spending bill
WASHINGTON — Talks over a $1.3 trillion government spending bill dragged Tuesday as congressional negotiators found themselves tangled in side issues ahead of a Friday deadline.
If lawmakers can agree on the bill, President Donald Trump will reap a huge budget increase for the military while Democrats will cement wins on infrastructure and other domestic programs that they failed to get under President Barack Obama.
First, though, Congress needs to vote. Leaders already missed Monday's deadline to file legislation and progress slowed as negotiators struggled to resolve several sticking points.
Most battles over budget priorities in the huge bill were essentially settled, but a scaled-back plan for Trump's border wall and a fight over a tunnel under the Hudson River still held up a final agreement.
Republican leaders had been hopeful a deal could be announced Tuesday evening, allowing for votes in the House and Senate this week. If a bill — or at least a stopgap measure to keep operations running — doesn't pass Congress by midnight Friday, the government will shut down for a third time this year.
The measure on the table would provide major funding increases for the Pentagon — $80 billion over current limits — bringing the military budget to $700 billion and giving GOP defense hawks a long-sought victory.
"We made a promise to the country that we would rebuild our military. Aging equipment, personnel shortages, training lapses, maintenance lapses — all of this has cost us," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "With this week's critical funding bill we will begin to reverse that damage."
Domestic accounts would get a generous 10 percent increase on average as well, awarding Democrats the sort of spending increases they sought but never secured during the Obama administration.
Democrats touted billions to fight the nation's opioid addiction epidemic. More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for training, security measures and treatment for the mentally ill. Medical research at the National Institutes of Health, a longstanding bipartisan priority, would receive a record $3 billion increase to $37 billion.
"We have worked to restore and in many cases increase investments in education, health care, opioids, NIH, child care, college affordability and other domestic and military priorities," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key negotiator of the measure.
Agencies historically unpopular with Republicans, such as the IRS, appear likely to get increases too, in part to prepare for implementation of the Republicans' recently passed tax measure. The Environmental Protection Agency, always a GOP target, may get a reprieve this year.
Lawmakers agreed on the broad outlines of the budget plan last month, after a standoff forced an overnight shutdown. The legislation implementing that deal is viewed as possibly one of few bills moving through Congress this year, making it a target for lawmakers and lobbyists seeking to attach their top priorities.
But efforts to add on unrelated legislation to tackle politically charged issues, such as immigration and rapidly rising health insurance premiums, appeared to be faltering.
An effort to extend protections for so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to the country as children appears to have failed. Democrats seemed likely to yield on $1.6 billion in wall funding, as outlined in Trump's official request for the 2018 budget year, but they were digging in against Trump's plans to hire hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration enforcement agents.
A dispute over abortion seemed likely to scuttle a Senate GOP plan to provide billions in federal subsidies to insurers to help curb health insurance premium increases.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was working on Trump's behalf against funding for a Hudson River tunnel and rail project that's important to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Republicans from New York and New Jersey.
The bill would add $143 billion over limits set under a 2011 budget and debt pact that forced automatic budget cuts on annual agency appropriations. Coupled with last year's tax cuts, it heralds the return of trillion-dollar budget deficits as soon as the budget year starting in October.
Republican conservatives are dismayed by the free-spending measure, meaning Democratic votes are required to pass it. That gave Democrats leverage to force GOP negotiators to drop numerous policy riders that Democrats considered poison pills.
Ryan said negotiations are ongoing about adding a widely backed measure that aims to strengthen federal background checks by prodding states to provide all records that disqualify people with severe mental health problems and other issues from buying firearms.
Republicans continued to press to fix a glitch in the recent tax bill that subsidizes grain sales to cooperatives at the expense of for-profit grain companies, lawmakers said.
"We need to fix that problem," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Schumer was demanding a provision of his own, tax subsidies to construct low-income housing, in exchange, lawmakers said.
The president, meanwhile, has privately threatened to veto the whole package if a $900 million payment is made on the Hudson River Gateway Project, a priority for Schumer. Trump's opposition is alarming Northeastern Republicans such as Rep. Peter King of New York, who lobbied Trump on the project at a St. Patrick's luncheon in the Capitol last week.
The Gateway Project would add an $11 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River to complement deteriorating, century-old tunnels that are at risk of closing in a few years. The project enjoys bipartisan support among key Appropriations panel negotiators on the omnibus measure who want to get the expensive project on track while their coffers are flush with money.
"I think we ought to get it done and it has good bipartisan support," Schumer said. "I'm not going to get into a back and forth with the president. This is a needed project, and I hope Congress rises to the occasion."
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