House Republican leaders filed a government funding bill late Wednesday that bows to the wishes of conservative lawmakers but is widely seen as unpassable in the Senate because of Democratic opposition.
The House bill provides funding for the military through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2018, and temporarily extends all other government funding until Jan. 19. The legislation also includes a GOP-written reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program and federal funding for community health centers.
What it does not include are any of the top priorities for Democrats, including provisions dealing with the immigration status of “dreamers,” funding to subsidize premiums in the insurance markets created under the Affordable Care Act, more money to combat the opioid addiction crisis or any increase in spending levels for nondefense agencies.
All of those are provisions that most conservatives oppose but that the Senate could add to the year-end spending package to secure its passage. The House bill is the first step in a dance that could result in a long-term bipartisan accord, a third short-term stopgap agreement or a pre-holiday government shutdown.
Bipartisan negotiations are underway to raise the spending caps imposed under a 2011 law. Doing so will require Republicans and Democrats to compromise on both defense and nondefense spending levels, but an agreement has been elusive.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in a statement that the bill, with its short-term extensions for most agencies, is “not the preferred way to do the nation’s fiscal business.” But he said it would give negotiators more time to agree on aggregate spending levels.
Senate Democrats, who can block Republicans from passing any spending legislation under the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster rule, said this week that they would reject the House Republican approach.
“We urge you to keep your commitment to the bipartisan budget negotiations and forego any plans to consider partisan legislation,” Democratic senators wrote Tuesday. “There is a better path — let the bipartisan negotiation continue in good faith so that Democrats and Republicans can produce a budget agreement that fully funds our homeland security, health care, and Veterans’ needs.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that the GOP bill was “not going to fly” and reiterated that Democrats expect spending levels to increase equally for the Pentagon and all other agencies.
The House bill filed Wednesday exceeds the current $549 billion statutory defense cap, spending $582 billion plus $68 billion in uncapped overseas war funding. Republican defense hawks have insisted on the higher military spending levels, and some dared Democrats to oppose it.
“We have to get defense done, and I find it hard to believe that the Democrats would play politics with that,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.). “I would hope that the Democrats understand that they are playing with fire.”
Some Republicans, including Byrne, proposed Wednesday that House lawmakers could simply pass the GOP’s funding bill next week, then leave town for the Christmas holiday — a maneuver that, they believe, would force the Senate to pass the more conservative bill.
But some GOP lawmakers said such a move would invite a disastrous holiday federal shutdown, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would not say Wednesday if Republican leaders were even entertaining the idea.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs, called the House bill an outgrowth of “the usual tactical tantrums and navel-gazing that we engage in from time to time as we create these self-inflicted dramas.”
Dent said that “we all know how this is going to end,” predicting that the Senate would strip out the defense funding and send back a more bipartisan bill. “I don’t know what the Senate will do. But I know what they will not do: They will not take the House bill as presently presented.”
Democrats are also pushing for passage of the Dream Act — legislation that would give legal status to thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — and funding to combat opioid abuse, support veterans and shore up underfunded pension plans.
Talks on a potential solution on the fate of dreamers, an emotionally charged element of the years-long fight over immigration policy, have been intense between Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the Capitol. Negotiators and party leaders tracking the discussions have said little publicly about their status. GOP leaders insist the issue will be kept out of the next spending bill, while in recent days Democratic leaders have avoided saying whether it’s still a must-have item.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is the longest-serving Latino in the Senate and is regularly consulted on immigration matters by top party leaders, cast doubt on the eventual success of ongoing immigration talks, saying, “I don’t think we’re as close as some people think.”
He called the fate of dreamers “the motherhood and apple pie of immigration” that should be easily resolved by Democrats and Republicans. In anticipation of a potential deal, Menendez said he has warned dreamers in his state about “what’s being asked in return” in a compromise for granting them permanent legal protections.
Republicans continue to press for changes in how U.S. Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement can target, detain and deport undocumented immigrants across the country. Some also are pushing for more federal dollars to fulfill Trump’s pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Several GOP proposals also target so-called “chain migration,” or exactly how many people a new U.S. citizen can bring with them into the country.
“I will have to swallow to have to deal with some of the border things that are being talked about, some of the monies that are being talked about — but I will do it if it means permanency for dreamers,” Menendez said in an interview with a group of Latino congressional reporters.
The key to reaching any agreement lies in top-line spending levels. Under the 2011 budget law, government spending on “discretionary” programs funded year-to-year cannot exceed $549 billion for defense and $516 billion for nondefense items in 2018.
Democrats want equivalent increases in both categories for the next two years, following a model previously used to lift the caps in 2013 and 2015 under President Barack Obama. Together, the potential agreement could add roughly $200 billion in federal spending — a notion that vexes conservatives who want GOP leaders to stand firm against Democratic demands, especially under a Republican president.
That has shaped the House GOP approach. McCarthy on Wednesday accused Democrats of slowing down progress on a bipartisan deal by pulling out of a White House summit meeting last month. He called on Democrats to support the House bill.
"We have a real concern about where our military readiness is right now, and we do not want to delay that any further," McCarthy said. "I don't think anybody on either side would want to play politics with the military."