Senate negotiators working to finalize long-term budget deal

J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flanked by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, left, and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., speaks with reporters as work continues on a plan to keep the government open as a funding deadline approaches, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate negotiators were finalizing a long-term budget deal Wednesday that would avert a looming government shutdown, as a leader of House conservatives predicted the group’s objections to big domestic spending increases would not be enough to block it.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, said he opposes the emerging bipartisan deal, which could be unveiled Wednesday, but he has few hopes of scuttling its passage. Spending increases will appeal to many lawmakers, Meadows said.
“I’m afraid the numbers will get so high and the debt ceiling will be added and it will be a Christmas tree of spending — that a lot of votes will be bought,” he said on MSNBC. Meadows’ group backs big defense increases but opposes boosting domestic spending.
The deal was picking up steam even as the president appeared to be readying for a standoff.
“I’d love to see a shutdown if we can’t get this stuff taken care of,” Trump declared Tuesday.
Trump’s comments were strikingly disconnected from the progress on Capitol Hill, where the House passed a short-term spending measure Tuesday night and Senate leaders were closing in on a larger, long-term pact. The broader agreement would award whopping spending increases to both the Pentagon and domestic federal programs, as well as approve overdue disaster relief money and, perhaps, crucial legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit and avoid possible default.
Democratic leaders have dropped their strategy of using the funding fight to extract concessions on immigration, specifically on seeking extended protections for the “Dreamer” immigrants who have lived in the country illegally since they were children. Instead, the Democrats prepared to cut a deal that would reap tens of billions of dollars for other priorities — including combatting opioids — while taking their chances on solving the immigration impasse later.
Tuesday night’s 245-182 House vote, mostly along party lines, set the machinery in motion. The six-week stopgap spending bill contains increases for the military that long have been demanded by Trump and his GOP allies. But the measure appears increasingly likely to be rewritten by the Senate to include legislation implementing the brewing broader 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. A looming government shutdown at midnight Thursday added urgency to the talks.
Both McConnell and Schumer reported progress Tuesday.
“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 fuzzy as ever. The Senate is slated next week to begin a debate to address the dilemma of immigrants left vulnerable after Trump cut off former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Weeks of bargaining have left the two parties divided over how to extend protections for such Dreamer immigrants. Trump has given lawmakers until March 5 to extend DACA, though a court ruling is temporarily keeping the program running.
McConnell said Tuesday that while he hopes “we will end up having something,” he was unsure if any proposed immigration measure would get the 60 votes needed for approval.
On Tuesday, White House chief of staff John Kelly threw fuel on the dispute as he defended Trump’s proposed solution. The retired general noted the White House proposal would expand protection for some 1.8 million immigrants. That group includes both the 690,000 currently shielded and also “the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” he said.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, his party’s chief immigration negotiator, bristled at the comment.
“I’m sorry for that characterization. It doesn’t surprise me from Gen. Kelly,” he said.
The budget talks appeared to be going more smoothly.
GOP defense hawks were prevailing over the party’s depleted ranks of deficit hawks, championing major new spending on military programs. Democrats, meanwhile, leveraged their influence to increase spending for domestic priorities.
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. It would 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 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 limit. Legislation to increase the debt ceiling is always a headache, especially for House GOP leaders whose rank and file have used past votes to register objections to deficit spending.
Another likely addition is more than $80 billion in long-overdue hurricane relief for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, a top priority of both parties.
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.
“It’s hard. If we can get a good deal that funds disaster relief, funds domestic priorities, funds the opioid crisis it would be a difficult call,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Schumer said he and Pelosi are “working from the same page,” appearing to discount speculation that she might oppose the coming pact.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected in the 3rd paragraph to show that Meadows spoke on MSNBC.

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