WASHINGTON – With President Donald Trump now willing to wait on money to fund a border wall, lawmakers on Capitol Hill edged closer Tuesday to a deal to prevent a government shutdown but were still slogging through a raft of unresolved issues.
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The biggest lingering question now is whether the spending bill, which is needed to keep the government running after its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, will include payments established by the Affordable Care Act to help insurers offset the cost of subsidies for low-income customers.
While few lawmakers from either party favor letting the payments lapse, which could potentially trigger the collapse of health plans midyear, both GOP leaders and Mr. Trump would prefer that the other take responsibility for them.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has said that the administration should continue making the payments. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that he believed Congress would have to make the decision on whether to set aside money for the payments and that if it didn't, he might consider cutting them off.
Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the spending bill, have said the legislation should include money for the "cost-sharing" payments, which reimburse insurers for subsidies that lower the cost of deductibles, copayments and coinsurance for about six million people who obtain insurance on the ACA's exchanges.
"We want to prevent the Trump administration and Republicans from defunding health care," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday. But he declined to say whether Democrats would oppose the spending bill if the payments were excluded.
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The challenge for GOP leaders is that many House Republicans could balk at voting for funds aimed at shoring up the ACA at a time when their legislation to replace most of the law has foundered. House GOP leaders were forced to pull their bill overhauling the law last month when it became clear it didn't have the votes to pass.
"There's obviously a lot of people who have strong opinions about that in the House, given what we're trying to do with Obamacare. So, my guess is that it doesn't end up getting addressed in this bill," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said of the insurance payments.
Lawmakers are also still negotiating whether the spending bill should include health-care and pension benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents, an issue that nearly derailed a government funding measure in December. That bill extended health-care benefits until April 30 for more than 22,000 retired coal miners and dependents, according to the United Mine Workers of America.
Now, lawmakers are wrangling over whether to extend that funding permanently or on a more-limited basis and whether to address pensions for retired miners and their widows, which are at risk of running out by 2022. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on Tuesday that he favored a "permanent fix" for miners' health care. House GOP leaders prefer a shorter-term solution, according to aides involved in the discussions.
The issue arises because of a decades-old federal promise of lifetime pensions and retiree health benefits to the United Mine Workers of America. Several lawmakers in states with affected miners, including West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, oppose another short-term fix because of the stress they say it puts on the miners and their families.
Neither the ACA payments nor the miners' health-care benefits appeared likely to set up a partisan showdown that could trigger a partial government shutdown on Saturday.
Lawmakers said the path to a deal became easier after Mr. Trump dropped his demand that the legislation include money for a wall along the border with Mexico, a stance that emerged Monday night. Mr. Trump is now saying that he would be willing to seek funding for the border wall later in the year.
The five-month spending bill is expected to include additional funding for the military and border security, according to lawmakers and aides. Those provisions are less controversial than the border wall, even among Republicans.
"Obviously we need better border security, but I've not been a fan of a 2,000-mile wall," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.)
Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he was confident that the wall would be built and indicated some flexibility on timing.
"The wall's going to get built, folks," Mr. Trump told reporters. "We have plenty of time."
--Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.
Write to Kristina Peterson at email@example.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 25, 2017 17:48 ET (21:48 GMT)