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Congress lurches toward shutdown deadline with obstacles unresolved

Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are trying to finalize a $1.3 trillion spending bill before Friday’s midnight deadline. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFEShutterstock)

Another brief government shutdown emerged as a distinct possibility Tuesday after congressional negotiators were unable to finalize a massive federal spending bill, threatening their efforts to meet a Friday night deadline for action.

Standing in the way of the $1.3 trillion spending agreement to fund all government agencies and programs through Sept. 30 are disputes over immigration, a giant tunnel under the Hudson River and various other issues that were still being hashed out Tuesday evening — a day after top congressional officials hoped to have a deal concluded.

House Republicans left a morning conference meeting Tuesday expecting to vote on the bill no sooner than Thursday. That would leave the Senate scant time to act by Friday at midnight to stave off a third government shutdown this year and empower any one senator to take advantage of the chamber’s rules to extend debate beyond the deadline.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on March 20 that there are still "unresolved issues" in spending bill negotiations. (Video: Reuters)

“It could happen,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican leader, said about the possibility of a short shutdown or a multiday bill that could keep lawmakers in Washington over the weekend as tens of thousands of protesters crowd the city to call for congressional action on gun control.

The thorniest issue seemed to be immigration policy, according to aides familiar with the talks, including how much funding would be available to construct the border wall favored by President Trump, as well as to hire immigration enforcement officers and support facilities to detain immigrants in the country illegally.

An effort to trade border wall money for protections for certain young immigrants appeared to have fallen apart. Trump continued to push for a last-minute deal as recently as Monday, but Democrats resisted the terms of the White House offer.

Lawmakers also continued to squabble over the Gateway project, which includes a costly tunnel to connect New Jersey and Manhattan — a $900 million federal contribution that is a top priority for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and some House Republicans but is opposed by Trump.

The omnibus legislation, which is expected to run upward of 1,000 pages, was supposed to be filed Monday, but that did not happen. Instead House GOP leaders told lawmakers Tuesday morning that they hoped to complete the bill later in the day and vote on it Thursday.

“Hopefully soon,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday morning. “There are some unresolved issues. We’re working through them while we speak, and we’re hoping to close it today.”

But by Tuesday evening, top congressional leaders weren’t guaranteeing that the bill would be done by day’s end.

With conservatives expected to oppose the legislation on fiscal grounds, Democratic votes will be needed in both chambers to pass the legislation. That has empowered Democrats to make demands on a variety of issues while resisting GOP priorities.

And because the legislation will be among the last major must-pass bills to move through Congress this year, it has become the vehicle for a number of unrelated priorities sought by the White House and lawmakers of both parties.

Must-pass bills such as the omnibus, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said, “are traditionally where people go to get stuff done that they’ve been waiting to get done which won’t move on their own.”

If the House acts Thursday, the Senate would have to get unanimous consent of its members to accelerate consideration of the bill to guarantee passage before the midnight deadline, meaning that any senator could delay proceedings and force a shutdown.

In early February, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held up consideration of a budget bill as he railed about the deficit, forcing a funding lapse of several hours on a Friday morning. Paul on Tuesday did not rule out doing the same thing this week, telling reporters he would review the bill before deciding whether to cooperate with party leaders.

House Republicans left their closed-door conference meeting Tuesday frustrated at finding themselves again up against a spending deadline, though most expressed confidence that they would ultimately avoid a shutdown.

“I don’t like how we always seem to wait till the last minute up here to come to terms with spending plans,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.).

The delays have mounted as Democrats have waged battle in closed-door negotiations with Republicans, taking on not only the GOP congressional leadership’s priorities but also those dear to Trump.

One of the most contentious fights has raged between Trump and Schumer over funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, which involves the construction of a tunnel into New York’s Penn Station to supplement two aging tubes that are at risk of failing. Republicans representing the region also support the project and held out hope for a favorable resolution.

“It’s not over till it’s over, and the president will have the final say,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.).

Trump also pushed Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in recent days to close a narrow deal that would protect immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for three years in exchange for $25 billion in border wall funding, according to two Republican officials familiar with the discussions. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose confidential negotiations.

Everything you need to know about a government shutdown

Democrats were pushing for protections for a larger pool of immigrants, but a Democratic aide said the White House was rejecting that approach. The aide said Tuesday that there are continued musings about a deal but that chances for an agreement were remote. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

On immigration, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday that Trump “has been pretty open on several different fronts on this and there’s a couple different suggestions he has put forth.”

In the closing hours of negotiations, Short contended that there is “a disconnect” between rank-and-file Democrats, who appear interested in a potential short-term DACA extension, and top party leaders, who have rejected such ideas in recent days.

“I think Democrats right now would rather use the DACA permit holders as pawns in a larger politics game,” Short said after meeting with Senate Democrats.

The White House and Republicans also pushed for inclusion of a measure known as the Fix NICS bill that would compel federal agencies to more correctly and accurately report information to the national criminal background check system. Democrats were seeking to couple that provision with a gun measure of their own, but it was uncertain if negotiators would reach agreement on the issue.

A number of other issues remained unresolved Tuesday, including a proposed fix for language in the new GOP tax law that inadvertently gave farmer-owned cooperatives an advantage over traditional agriculture corporations by offering a significantly larger deduction for sales to cooperatives.

Farm-state lawmakers have pushed to resolve the issue, which they warn could create upheaval in the farm economy. But Democrats are unwilling to fix a problem with the tax law, which they all opposed, without getting something in return, and their proposed trade is an affordable-housing tax measure championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Several Senate Republicans said they were hopeful of getting the fix in the bill if the Democratic housing proposal wasn’t overly costly.

“Some of the concerns I think have been that the number starts getting pretty big,” Thune said. “But I think there are some things that are acceptable and hopefully we’ll get the House to agree to that.”

Ed O’Keefe, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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