Lawmakers optimistic about passing spending bill before next deadline

February 19, 2018 GMT

Lawmakers crafting a long-term spending bill to get the federal government past the next funding deadline in late March are optimistic there won’t be another shutdown showdown though they’re keeping a weather eye on the immigration debate.

This month’s budget deal, settling on the top-line numbers for domestic and defense spending, finally cleared the way for completion of fiscal year 2018 funding bills, which are already nearly five months overdue.

“We can move faster than you think,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican and member of the Appropriations Committee. “I would hope we could go ahead and do our job on appropriations and ultimately get back to regular order.”


The 2018 spending process has been rough, even by the low standards of Congress’s recent behavior, with two partial shutdowns and not a single full appropriations bill approved in the Senate yet.

Now Congress is racing a March 23 deadline, promising things are finally on track and they’re done with stopgap bills for the year.

“There shouldn’t be a need for another,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, who chairs a House appropriations subcommittee on military and veterans issues.

The government-wide “omnibus” appropriations package in the works would fund departments through September based on new discretionary spending cap levels that give lawmakers about $140 billion more to work with this year.

Still, full-year appropriations bills are always vehicles for specific provisions, known as riders, that effectively write policy by prohibiting federal money from being used for specific purposes.

Some lawmakers have said the deadline could be used to force Congress to revisit the immigration debate, after the Senate failed last week to come up with a plan for giving illegal immigrant “Dreamers” a more permanent status.

The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty begins to phase out March 5, and lawmakers say that pairing an extension with border security funding is a possibility.

“If there can be some negotiation leading up to the omnibus, perhaps there will be some temporary provision, which to me is not great but it’s kind of where we are,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

Rep. John Carter, who chairs the House’s homeland security appropriations subcommittee, said the new plan could be to pass an immigration bill crafted by House conservatives and then work off of that measure to write the new spending levels.


“And then from that, we’ll write our bill,” said Mr. Carter, Texas Republican. “We got to get numbers. We got to see what the dollars are. I’ve asked that question myself, and I don’t have an answer.”

Democrats already forced one shutdown last month over immigration, and though they haven’t drawn any red lines around the March 23 deadline yet, some are eyeing it as a leverage point.

And with the Democratic Caucus holding 49 seats in the Senate, they have a tremendous amount of leverage.

For now, key Democrats are tamping down talk of showdowns.

Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, said he plans to simply keep his head down and try to finish the things he can on time.

“I think what I’m going to be focused on is making sure that we’re taking steps in the right direction to do what we need to make sure that we have secure borders,” he said. “So that’s where my focus is going to be, as well as other things like TSA.”

Other possible flash points could include gun violence, environmental regulations or abortion policy.

“We fight over those every year the Hyde Amendment seems to be a battle that again, we fight every year we seem to be able to win on that. EPA, same thing. We have some small victories there,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican and a House Appropriations Committee member.

The Hyde Amendment generally bars the federal government from paying for elective abortions. It’s been part of spending bills for four decades, but Democrats have recently made a push to try to repeal the policy and free up taxpayer money for abortions.

Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed for deeper restrictions, such as blocking money from going to Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest network of abortion clinics. Democrats have managed to block those efforts for several years.

“The first thing that comes to mind anytime you say limitation rider, to me, is the Hyde Amendment,” said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.