A week after a standoff forced a three-day government shutdown, congressional budget talks remain bogged down by Democrats' demands to protect "Dreamer" immigrants and GOP conservatives' concerns about a booming federal deficit.
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The deadlock is deflating hopes that lawmakers will reach a breakthrough before another shutdown deadline next week.
At risk are up to $80 billion in increases for the Pentagon this year alone, and nearly as much money for domestic programs. Almost $100 billion worth of overdue assistance for hurricane-slammed Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida is being held up.
The knot involves about $1.2 billion in agency operating budgets for the fiscal year that began in October, along with hurricane relief, President Donald Trump's $18 billion-plus border wall, and other odds and ends.
The measure has been hung up for months as lawmakers in both parties struggle first with a deal to increase tight limits on spending that are left over from a failed 2011 budget agreement. It takes both Republicans and Democrats to lift the limits, called spending "caps" in Capitol-speak. But talks have proceeded slowly and are now awaiting agreement on legislation to address younger immigrants currently protected from deportation under the soon-to-expire Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
But there are other problems afoot. Conservatives say Republican and Democratic proposals on the table would balloon the deficit, sending it over $1 trillion by next year.
"That's a non-starter for conservatives," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
The House Tuesday instead passed — for the third time — a $659 billion Pentagon funding measure. The bill would break the existing budget cap for defense by $73 billion — almost $20 billion more than the budget Trump proposed last year. The 250-166 vote House vote broke mostly along party lines.
The move was aimed at turning up the heat on Senate Democrats, several of whom face difficult re-election bids in states won by Trump.
Republicans are trying to cast Democrats as holding money for U.S. troops hostage to obtain sympathetic treatment for immigrants facing deportation, as well as a variety of other Democratic priorities.
"Senate Democrats are playing politics with defense spending that is so vital to our national security needs," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "We just don't see this as irresponsible. It's dangerous. You do have training accidents happening more and more these days."
It's unclear exactly what would happen if negotiations fall apart, but one possibility would be continuing current spending levels. That would upset the Pentagon's many allies on the Republican side. It would also upset Capitol Hill's once-dominant Appropriations committees, which have watched in frustration over the past few years as Congress has increasingly struggled to perform its most basic task of funding the government.
Operating at a budget freeze, the Pentagon says, would imperil training and other components of military readiness, along with acquisition of new weapons systems and equipment. On the domestic side, it would mean arresting the growth in medical research and efforts to fight opioid abuse, among other bipartisan priorities.
It would also mean Washington's dysfunction could become even more entrenched.
"It's really important that something happen because the more times that you don't find a way to get together the more difficult it is the next time around to get together," said former Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.
"If we can't figure this out — it's been punted, punted, punted and punted — how are we going to manage to get through the next three years under this president?" asked Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a key Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
The delays guarantee that lawmakers will need to pass yet another stopgap spending bill — the fifth since September — next week to prevent another government shutdown next Friday. While Senate Democrats don't appear to have any interest in sparking a second government shutdown by filibustering next week's temporary funding bill, it appears House Republicans will have to again struggle to summon the unity to advance the legislation on the strength of their votes alone.
In all of this languishes a House-passed $81 billion emergency aid bill for hurricane-hit states and territories. Democrats like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York say the bill needs billions more for Puerto Rico, and he hasn't been shy about saying delays in considering the legislation in the Senate give him leverage.
Republicans like Texas Sen. John Cornyn say Schumer is holding hurricane aid "hostage," but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hasn't moved to force Schumer's hand. Schumer was a central force in advancing more than $60 billion in Superstorm Sandy relief six years ago and would be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy if he actively blocked the current measure.
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