WASHINGTON — With a midnight government shutdown creeping closer, both Republicans and Democrats grappled with internal party divisions as they tried to push through a massive budget deal Thursday night.
Frustrations mounted — and the risk of a shutdown increased — as GOP Sen. Rand Paul held up voting on the broad measure in hopes of obtaining recorded votes on reversing spending increases.
“I ran for office because I was very critical of President Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits,” the Kentucky senator said. “Now we have Republicans hand in hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits. I can’t in all honesty look the other way.”
Sen. Rand Paul speaks on the floor of the Senate Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said his side would support a brief, 24-hour stopgap spending bill to stave off a partial agency closure, but Republicans rejected the offer.
The Trump administration, which favored approval of the broad budget measure, was preparing for a “lapse” in appropriations, an official with the Office of Management and Budget said, commenting only on condition of anonymity. That suggested a short shutdown, if any, less than a month after the three-day interruption last month.
Agencies brought out now-familiar contingency plans. The partial shutdown would essentially force half the federal workforce to stay home, freeze some operations and close some parks and outposts. Services deemed essential would continue, including Social Security payments, the air traffic control system and law enforcement.
Approval in the Senate seemed assured — eventually — but the situation in the House remained dicey. In that chamber, both progressive Democrats and tea party Republicans opposed the measure, which contains roughly $400 billion in new spending for the Pentagon, domestic agencies, disaster relief and extending a host of health care provisions.
However, House GOP leaders were confident they had shored up support among conservatives for the measure, which would shower the Pentagon with money but add hundreds of billions of dollars to the nation’s $20 trillion-plus debt.
House Democratic leaders opposed the measure — arguing it should resolve the plight of immigrant “Dreamers” who face deportation after being brought to the U.S. illegally as children — but not with all their might.
The legislation doesn’t address immigration, though Republican Speaker Paul Ryan said again Thursday he was determined to bring an immigration bill to the floor this year, albeit only one that has President Donald Trump’s blessing.
At a late afternoon meeting, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California made it plain that she wasn’t pressuring fellow Democrats to kill the bill, which is packed with money for party priorities like infrastructure, combating opioid abuse and help for college students.
Still, it represented a bitter defeat for Democrats who followed a risky strategy to use the party’s leverage on the budget to address immigration and ended up scalded by last month’s three-day government shutdown.
Republicans were sheepish about the bushels of dollars for Democratic priorities and the return next year of $1 trillion-plus deficits. But they pointed to money they have long sought for the Pentagon, which they say needs huge sums for readiness, training and weapons modernization.
“It provides what the Pentagon needs to restore our military’s edge for years to come,” said Ryan.
Beyond $300 billion worth of record increases for the military and domestic programs, the agreement adds $89 billion in overdue disaster aid for hurricane-slammed Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, a politically charged increase in the government’s borrowing cap and a grab bag of health and tax provisions. There’s also $16 billion to renew a slew of expired tax breaks that Congress seems unable to kill.
Cotton growers and dairy farmers would get relief courtesy of the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee, while popular funding for community health centers would be extended for two years, among myriad health provisions. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky won a break for tiny Berea College in his state, exempting it from a new tax on its endowments that was part of last year’s GOP tax bill.
“I love bipartisanship, as you know,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “But the problem is the only time we discover bipartisanship is when we spend more money.”
Pelosi was the chief architect of a failed strategy to use Democratic leverage on the budget to try to force GOP leaders to agree to legislation for younger immigrants whose protection against deportation under former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, expires next month.
But the deal contains far more money demanded by Democrats than had seemed possible only weeks ago.
“We’re not going to get DACA as part of this,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee. “So if we can negotiate a deal like I think we’ve gotten that essentially meets every other one of our priorities then I think that’s where a lot of the Democrats are.”
Added conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar of Texas: “It’s an easy ‘yes.‘”
Combined with the Republicans’ December tax cut bill, the burst in military and other spending would put the GOP-controlled government on track for the first $1 trillion-plus deficits since Obama’s first term and the aftermath of the most recent recession nine years ago.
“This budget deal shows just how broken the budget process is, that Congress thinks the only way to agree to a budget is to put hundreds of billions of dollars on the nation’s credit card,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based group that advocates for fiscal discipline.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the measure amounts to “doubling down on the irresponsible mentality in Congress of spend-now-pay-later.”
The deal is a framework that repeals tight budget “caps” from a failed 2011 budget agreement, but the spending won’t take effect until Congress passes a follow-up omnibus appropriations bill that will take weeks to negotiate.
The agreement would increase the government’s borrowing limit to prevent a first-ever default on U.S. obligations that looms in just a few weeks. The debt limit would be suspended through March of 2019, putting the next vote on it safely past this year’s midterm elections.
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