Congress Is Inching Closer to a Shutdown Over Immigration and Obamacare

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  • Unresolved battles between parties to be revived in December
  • Trump’s shifting stances in negotiations create ‘wild card’

Trump's Agenda Slowed by Obamacare, Nafta Rifts

The year’s most divisive fights in Congress are set to converge in a bitter partisan clash in December that could result in a U.S. government shutdown.

The unresolved battles -- over a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration, health-care subsidies, Planned Parenthood and storm relief -- are hanging over talks on must-pass spending legislation to keep the government open after Dec. 8. The spending measure is at risk of becoming so weighted with controversial items that it collapses.

“The laundry list of things they want to put on it grows every day,” said Jim Dyer, a former House Appropriations Committee Republican staff director.

Even without contentious issues, completing a trillion-dollar spending bill in time would be a tall order.

The brewing battle could leave Republicans with no major accomplishments in President Donald Trump’s first year after they couldn’t find enough votes to repeal Obamacare. The more protracted the fight, the less time in 2017 to to overhaul the tax code, the GOP’s top priority.

There also may be pressure to raise the federal debt limit as part of a year-end package, although the Treasury Department is likely to use its authority to delay the need for an increase into early next year.

Unbridgeable policy differences might result in a push to simply extend current spending authority through fiscal 2018. That would limit military spending to $549 billion, leaving out the big boost sought by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona and other Republican defense hawks.

‘Always a Risk’

McCain is among those threatening to take his year-end priorities to the mat. He said Wednesday that he won’t support any temporary extension of government agency spending unless the defense caps are lifted. He said a government shutdown -- for the first time since 2013 -- is possible.

“There’s always a risk every time we go through this cycle,” he said.

Democrats say a shutdown can be averted if Trump and congressional Republicans, including the conservative House Freedom Caucus, put aside unrealistic demands such as a ban on funds for Planned Parenthood or requiring any added hurricane-relief funds to be offset with domestic spending cuts.

“We don’t want a shutdown,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “Ask President Trump. Ask our hard-right Freedom Caucus types.”

Democratic Leverage

There’s still a chance the two parties can agree on a deal. Senate Democrats have leverage because spending bills require 60 votes for passage while Republicans have a slim 52-48 majority.

The biggest looming dispute is over immigration. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California say they want Trump to make good on a tentative deal they struck last month to allow about 800,000 people who entered the U.S. illegally as children to stay with a possible path to citizenship. In exchange, Democrats would support stronger border security -- without the wall that Trump promised in his 2016 campaign.

The White House angered both top Democrats this month by calling for “complete construction” of the wall and more immigration enforcement. Schumer and Pelosi say the administration can expect broad Democratic opposition to wall funding in a year-end spending plan.

The wall fight alone could lead to a government shutdown. Trump upped the ante by saying in May that a "good shutdown" may be necessary to win approval of $1.6 billion he wants to fund the wall. The money is in the House and Senate draft spending bills for Homeland Security, meaning it will be on the table in any omnibus negotiations.

Obamacare Exchanges

An effort to bolster Obamacare insurance exchanges could also doom spending legislation. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington agreed this week on a plan to provide two more years of subsidies to help low-income people buy individual coverage on Obamacare’s insurance exchanges. They seek to lure Republican votes by also giving states added flexibility in overseeing insurer offerings on the exchanges.

Trump, who earlier encouraged Alexander to cut a deal, signaled opposition to the measure. His spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said, “We need something that goes a little further to get on board.”

Steve Bell, a former Senate Budget Committee GOP staff director, said Trump’s shifting positions could poison the well for bipartisan deals. "All of that makes a Dec. 8 shutdown very possible,” he said. 

Senate Republican leaders haven’t promised to advance the health-care pact, and many House Republicans -- including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin -- say they don’t want to shore up a health-care system they’d rather repeal.

Schumer told reporters Wednesday that both sides should continue to seek a fix, possibly in the spending bill.

Disaster Relief

Another sticking point is disaster relief. Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico could seek tens of billions of dollars in additional rebuilding money once final damage assessments are tallied. Conservatives are likely to seek spending cuts in exchange for such funds, which Democrats and many other Republicans reject.

A dispute over extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expired in September, could also carry over into the spending bill. So too could a perennial push by Republican House conservatives to ban funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions and family planning services.

On defense, Republicans are seeking to increase spending caps by $54 billion, while Democrats insist that must be coupled with the same increase for non-defense spending.

In some previous years, lawmakers bridged their differences and agreed to raise agency spending in exchange for cuts in mandatory spending in future years. But the last deal in 2015 was so controversial with House conservatives that it led to the ouster of Speaker John Boehner.

Republican congressional leaders want to avoid a shutdown after the 2013 closing tanked their approval ratings.

Yet Trump’s unpredictable behavior and negotiating tactics give them little control, said Stan Collender, a longtime congressional budget aide who is now executive vice president of Qorvis MSL Group in Washington.

“It all depends on Trump,” Collender said. “He’s the wild card in this.”

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