Congress must pass a sprawling $1.3 trillion omnibus budget by Friday evening to avoid yet another government shutdown, and many key policy disputes have not yet been resolved. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has announced his intention to pass the bill out of the lower chamber on Thursday, giving the Senate just a single day to pass the bill, and allowing any disgruntled senator to filibuster and threaten a shutdown.
Because lawmakers expect that the omnibus will be the last major bill passed out of Congress ahead of the 2018 midterms, many are scrambling to hitch their own bills to the wagon—trying and so far failing to include policies tackling Capitol Hill sexual harassment, implementing an online sales tax, and addressing the status of 700,00-plus immigrant “Dreamers” living in legal limbo.
Many policy battles, however, remain. Here are five of the biggest sticking points still tying up the omnibus negotiations:
Gateway to the danger zone
Amid all of the ideological policy fights in the bill, on immigration, abortion and other hot-button issues, the White House has come down the hardest against a single infrastructure project in President Trump’s home state. Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the omnibus if it includes $900 million in funding for the commuter train Gateway tunnel project in New York. New Jersey and New York Republicans—who are already staring down difficult reelection battles this November—have been pleading with the President to change his mind. Many lawmakers have openly speculated that Trump’s ultimate goal is to punish those in his own party who voted against the GOP tax bill and bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, and to thumb his nose at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who desperately wants the project funded.
“This is probably one of the most needed public works projects for the whole Eastern corridor, from Maine to Virginia,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “If those tunnels fail, we’ll have a recession not just in the northeast but a national recession.”
As of Wednesday morning, prospects for the Gateway tunnel funding were grim.
Build the wall?
Having already shot down several bipartisan immigration bills that would have included significant funding for President Trump’s signature campaign promise—a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border—the administration is currently fighting to get whatever it can in the omnibus.
The White House has floated a short-term deal that would protect DACA recipients for three years in exchange for some border wall funding, but the proposal faces stiff opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans told TPM they don’t want to merely kick the can down the road, and prefer a permanent solution. Democrats say they were willing to give Trump his wall only in exchange for a path to citizenship for Dreamers, not just a three-year stay of deportation.
“The offers they gave us, the one official offer from the President, was sort of off the table immediately it was so biased,” Schumer said Tuesday.
Like his Republican counterparts, Schumer says he does not expect a major immigration deal to make it into the omnibus at all. “There will be lots of opportunities for us to try to help the DACA kids,” he said. “The President is standing in the way.”
The Washington Post reported Wednesday morning that the omnibus will fund only 33 miles of new border wall construction, with a small fraction of the $25 billion Trump has demanded.
Republicans released a bill Monday afternoon that aims to shore up Obamacare’s damaged individual market and bring down insurance premiums. The bill would revive for three years the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to health insurers that President Trump terminated last year, pour $30 billion into a federal reinsurance program, and fully restore funding to the open enrollment outreach work that the federal government abandoned when Trump took office.
The bill, however, is dead on arrival with Democrats, because it applies the Hyde Amendment — a 1976 law that bans federal dollars from funding abortion services — to subsidies for private insurance plans. The language in the bill dictates that no private plan on the Affordable Care Act market that covers abortion care — which all plans in New York and California do by law — can receive a cost-sharing reduction subsidy, even if the patient buying the plan never has an abortion.
“It has become clear to me over the past several days that those who don’t want this bill to pass anyway have decided the best way to do that is to stick something in there that precludes us from being able to support it,” grumbled Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) to reporters Tuesday.
Talks on inserting a provision into the omnibus have all but broken down. Asked Tuesday about the chances of passing a stabilization bill later this year, the bill’s sponsor Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told reporters: “Zero.”
“If this debate about the Hyde language continues to be the Democrats’ point of view, I don’t see how you can ever change the Affordable Care Act without repealing and replacing it,” Alexander said.
After President Trump lashed out at Special Counsel Bob Mueller by name over the weekend and fired one of the top DOJ officials overseeing the Russia investigation, some lawmakers feared the President would move to fire Mueller. Democrats are pleading with GOP leadership to include in the omnibus a bill shielding the Special Counsel that has languished in Congress for months.
“To fire Bob Mueller is an attack on the rule of law, an attack on fundamental American values,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told TPM on Tuesday. “We ought to try at every single opportunity [to pass the bill shielding him].”
But GOP leaders in the House and Senate shrugged off the need for such protections on Tuesday.
“The Special Counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference. I am confident that he’ll be able to do that,” Ryan told reporters. “I’ve received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed, saying Tuesday: “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think Bob Mueller is going anywhere. There is widespread feeling that he ought to be able to finish the job.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the author of the bill to protect Mueller, told TPM: “I do not expect to see it in the omnibus at this point.”
Amid the news of yet another school shooting, this time in nearby Maryland, lawmakers are exploring whether they can insert any policies aimed at reducing gun violence into the omnibus budget bill.
“I think we should do Fix NICS. I agree with Fix NICS,” Ryan said, referring to a bill that would improve data collection for the federal government’s background check database for gun purchases.
Democrats want to go much further, and are calling on Congress to revive the assault weapons ban, strengthen gun background checks and close loopholes for purchases online and at gun shows, and lift the ban on federal research of gun violence.
Adding to the pressure, if Congress is unable to finish their work by Friday’s deadline—a real possibility—they will face hundreds of thousands of people from across the country descending on Washington to protest their inaction on gun control.
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