Congress Passes Short-Term Spending Bill to Avoid Government Shutdown

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Top House Republicans moved to pass a stopgap spending bill Thursday needed to avoid a government shutdown, after GOP leaders scrapped a partisan proposal prioritizing military funding ahead of the weekend deadline.

House Republicans were optimistic Thursday they had enough votes to pass a short-term spending bill that would keep the government funded through Jan. 19, putting off contentious long-term funding fights until next year. Current government funding expires at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.

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"We will get it done today," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) told reporters.

If the bill passes the House, the Senate could take it up as soon as later Thursday.

"The Senate stands ready to take up an agreement as soon as one originates in the House," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Some House Republicans had grumbled at the change in plans Wednesday, after GOP leaders dropped a proposal to fund the military through the full fiscal year, which ends in September. That plan stood no chance of passing the Senate, where Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass spending bills, demanded that military and domestic spending be extended for the same duration.

"There's obvious disagreements by particularly people on the defense side," Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.) said Wednesday evening, as House Republicans left a tense closed-door meeting on the spending-bill strategy. Still, Republicans said they expected to reach an agreement to avoid a partial shutdown that could steal the spotlight from passage of their tax overhaul this week.

"I don't think that our conference, given the victory that we've just taken on tax, will risk a shutdown," Mr. Womack said.

President Donald Trump weighed in Thursday morning, urging House Republicans to go along with the stopgap spending bill, or continuing resolution, known as a CR.

"House Democrats want a SHUTDOWN for the holidays in order to distract from the very popular, just passed, Tax Cuts," Mr. Trump said on Twitter. "House Republicans, don't let this happen. Pass the C.R. TODAY and keep our Government OPEN!"

House Democrats aren't expected to support the spending bill unless GOP leaders make late concessions to win their votes. But Republicans, who hold a 239-193 majority, were optimistic they could pass the bill on their own, according to GOP aides.

In the Senate, Democrats have signaled they are interested in keeping the government running. In particular, Senate Democratic leaders haven't moved to use the spending bill as leverage on immigration.

Immigration activists and some rank-and-file Democrats in both chambers wanted to withhold support for the spending bill unless it contained protections for so-called Dreamers, young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children.

Mr. Trump in September ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that protected them, but gave Congress six months to pass legislation before protections begin to expire.

To help maintain their leverage, Senate Democrats pushed to consider other big-ticket legislative items next month, when lawmakers expect to resolve the immigration fight and pass a longer-term spending bill.

"I don't think you can resolve half of it now, half of it in January," said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) " It just won't happen."

Congressional leaders are still negotiating a two-year budget deal to raise overall spending levels from limits established in 2011. Lawmakers have since then passed several multiyear deals avoiding those spending curbs and hope to reach another two-year deal in January.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Democrats objected to a separate $81 billion package of disaster aid for states and territories affected by this year's destructive storms expected to get a vote in the House Thursday. Democrats argue the emergency aid doesn't do enough for Puerto Rico, compared with its treatment of Texas and Florida, which have large House Republican delegations.

"Democrats want to make sure that we have equal bargaining, and we are not going to allow things like disaster relief go forward without discussing some of the other issues we care about," Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.

The House spending bill would make available $2.85 billion to shore up states' funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have indicated that they will be able to transfer enough money to states running low to get them through the end of January or early February, a House GOP aide said. Lawmakers hope to include a longer-term reauthorization of the program in the January spending bill.

The spending bill also contains a short-term extension of surveillance authorities under a law that authorizes an array of electronic spying through mid-January.

The long-term renewal of the law, called the FISA Amendments Act, has emerged as an unexpected flashpoint on Capitol Hill, where conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have banded together to demand greater privacy protections for Americans caught up in surveillance of foreigners. The short-term extension gives Congress additional time to debate what kind of changes to make to the program.

--Byron Tau contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

WASHINGTON -- Congress passed a stopgap spending bill that keeps the government funded through mid-January, avoiding a looming shutdown but punting thorny policy debates into next year.

In a 66-32 vote, the Senate approved a monthlong spending bill keeping the government running through Jan. 19. The bill, which passed the House earlier Thursday, now heads to the White House, where President Donald Trump was expected to sign it.

The bill marks the latest in a series of short-term spending measures Congress has passed while struggling to hammer out a broader budget deal. While the measure would keep the government open beyond the expiration of its current funding at 12: 01 a.m. on Saturday, lawmakers were set to leave Washington without having resolved stubborn divisions over issues that could produce an uglier showdown in January.

Congress is likely to return next year with just a few weeks to hammer out a two-year budget deal, a reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program and how to handle the so-called Dreamers, young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children.

Bipartisan discussions may accelerate next year, now that the GOP rewrite of the tax code has cleared Congress. Republican leaders have been laser-focused on sewing down votes for the tax bill, unwilling to let any other negotiations cost them a GOP vote. And Democrats have been under pressure to resist Mr. Trump and Republicans as the tax bill advanced. Still, next month will be treacherous.

"January's going to be a bear," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) "This is a process that doesn't ever seem to get easy."

In an unusual moment of cohesion, House Republicans produced enough GOP votes to pass the spending bill on their own Thursday, though 14 Democrats later joined them once the tally had crossed the 217-vote threshold needed for passage. House Republicans have often splintered over spending bills, but passed two this month, in part buoyed by passage of their tax overhaul this week.

"The fact that we got tax reform done makes this vote much easier," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R., N.C.), chief deputy whip for the House Republicans. Normally, "it is difficult for us to pass a plain vanilla item or the most conservative" bill just with GOP votes, he said.

But that unity may be difficult to maintain in January. Congressional leaders hope to reach a two-year agreement that would set federal spending above limits established in a 2011 debt-limit fight. Lawmakers have since then passed several multiyear deals avoiding those spending curbs and hope to reach a deal in January boosting spending by $180 billion to $200 billion over two years, aides said.

GOP leaders have also indicated they hope to reach an agreement with Democrats and the White House next month over how to shield the Dreamers from deportation.

Mr. Trump in September ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that protected them, but gave Congress six months to pass legislation before protections begin to expire. A bipartisan group of senators met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly this week to discuss elements of a potential January deal.

Democrats, unhappy that the immigration and spending fights couldn't be wrapped up before year's end, deferred the resolution of some others into 2018 in a bid to boost their leverage next month. Although the spending bill passed Thursday makes more money available for states' children's health insurance programs, a longer-term reauthorization will be needed next year.

"I don't think you can resolve half of it now, half of it in January," said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.). "It just won't happen."

Conservative House Republicans acknowledged with some foreboding that the accumulation of issues piling up next month would likely produce deals that knit together a coalition of mainstream Republicans and Democrats, while cutting out the extremes on both sides of the aisle.

"I'm not optimistic that there'll be a whole lot of conservative wins in the month of January," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen of the most conservative House Republicans.

Democratic leaders indicated that while they had let immigration slip into January, when a budget deal is expected to be reached, they were prepared to take a harder line next month. A number of Senate Democrats voted against the spending bill Thursday because it didn't address immigration or children's health insurance.

The Senate didn't consider a bill passed by the House Thursday that would authorize $81 billion in disaster aid for states and territories hit by this year's devastating storms. Democrats, who objected to the bill, said they intended to continue negotiations in January.

Many Democrats argued the emergency aid doesn't do enough for Puerto Rico, compared with its treatment of Texas and Florida, which have large House Republican delegations. The bill doesn't waive a requirement that Puerto Rico, which is mired in the largest-ever U.S. municipal bankruptcy, match some of the federal funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency projects.

"They don't even have the lights on, for god's sake," said Rep. Juan Vargas (D., Calif.). "There's no urgency to help Puerto Rico -- and there should be."

The spending bill that cleared Congress on Thursday would make available $2.85 billion to shore up states' funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have indicated that they will be able to transfer enough money to states running low to get them through the end of January or early February, a House GOP aide said. Lawmakers hope to include a longer-term reauthorization of the program in the January spending bill.

The spending bill also contains a short-term extension of surveillance authorities under a law that authorizes an array of electronic spying through mid-January.

The long-term renewal of the law, called the FISA Amendments Act, has emerged as an unexpected flashpoint on Capitol Hill, where conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have banded together to demand greater privacy protections for Americans caught up in surveillance of foreigners. The short-term extension gives Congress additional time to debate what kind of changes to make to the program.

Mr. Meadows said GOP leaders had promised conservatives that they would get to vote on the surveillance law separately from spending legislation in January.

--Byron Tau contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 21, 2017 19:44 ET (00:44 GMT)