Congress votes to avert government shutdown
Congress approved a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown, but failed to complete work on an $81 billion disaster aid package to help California, Gulf Coast states and Puerto Rico recover from wildfires and hurricanes, as lawmakers scrambled Thursday to wrap up business before a Christmas break.
The stopgap measure continues federal operations for a few more weeks, setting up another deadline for Jan. 19. But it left undone a long list of priorities that members of both parties had hoped to finish this year.
The House approved the spending bill 231-188, with 14 Democrats joining a majority of the chamber’s Republicans. The Senate quickly followed, voting 66-32 to avert a federal shutdown Friday.
The disaster aid package, though, the largest in U.S. history, ran into trouble. It passed the House 251-169, on a bipartisan vote, but was blocked in the Senate, where it required 60 votes, under pressure from two directions.
Conservative groups opposed the disaster measure for increasing spending too much, and Democrats said it was insufficient, especially for hard-hit Puerto Rico. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky decided not to bring the measure up for a vote.
Lawmakers plan to try again in the new year.
The stop-gap spending bill would fund three more months of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which provides insurance for nearly 9 million children nationwide. Congress has been deadlocked on a longer-term renewal of the popular program, and several states are on the verge of running out of money to keep it open.
The bill would also extend for a few weeks the National Security Agency’s legal authority for domestic surveillance of emails, which is set to expire at the end of the month. The debate over major reforms in the program would be punted, along with many other issues, into the new year.
Among the unresolved issues is protection for the young immigrants called Dreamers, who face the threat of deportation starting in March because of President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program, or DACA, which allowed them to stay and work in the U.S.
Gaining a permanent legislative fix for the Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, was a top priority for Democrats, some of whom had promised to oppose any year-end spending bill that did not include it.
More than 1,000 Dreamers and advocates continued protests and lawmaker visits Thursday at the Capitol. In the end, though, moderate Democrats said they would not risk a government shutdown at this point over the issue. Party leaders promised to fight out the issue in January.
“There’s a lot of justifiable anger and disappointment that the Dream Act didn’t pass before the holidays, but we remain optimistic that we’re going to get it done,” said Frank Sharry, executive director at America’s Voice, an immigrant-advocacy organization.
Passage of both the year-end spending bill and the disaster aid package has been uncertain all week as the Republican majority, particularly in the House, fought over priorities. Defense hawks pushed unsuccessfully for a big boost in military spending. Conservatives opposed the disaster package unless it included offsetting cuts to other programs.
In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., appealed to GOP lawmakers to capitalize on the unified front they had shown in passing the tax-cut bill this week, hoping to end the year on a political high note.
“Let’s stand together, be a team,” Ryan urged lawmakers in a private meeting in the Capitol basement, according to a person present in the room who was not authorized to speak on the record. Ryan reminded bickering lawmakers that their divisions only served up opportunities for Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, to leverage their votes for their own priorities.
Trump echoed that message in a morning tweet urging passage of what’s called a continuing resolution: “House Democrats want a SHUTDOWN for the holidays in order to distract from the very popular, just passed, Tax Cuts. House Republicans, don’t let this happen. Pass the C.R. TODAY and keep our Government OPEN!”
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., implored colleagues to support the disaster-aid measure, as well.
“Here and now, right before Christmas, don’t vote against aid,” he said. “What we do here and now, it has consequences.”
The huge disaster-aid package signals what experts have warned will be greater expenses for covering natural calamities as the climate changes.
It included $4.4 billion California sought for wildfires earlier this season, but does not include recovery money for the devastating Thomas fire, among the biggest ever recorded. Congressional leaders expect to consider more money for the costs of that fire in 2018.
Even so, conservative groups warned lawmakers to vote against it.
“Congress is trying to ram through a huge spending bill with little warning, claiming that offsets are not needed because it’s an ‘emergency,’ ” said the conservative Club for Growth. “This profligate spending needs to stop.”
The spending measure will keep most government operations running at existing levels, with some slight boosts for the military — including construction of a missile field in Alaska that is intended to boost defenses against the threat of an attack by North Korea — but not the big increase sought by defense hawks.
CHIP will receive $2.8 billion to continue funding through March, but not the broader authorization governors and advocates have been seeking.
Republicans made good on a promise to shield Medicare and other programs from steep cuts that could result if the just-passed GOP tax plan adds to deficits, which it is expected to do. The stop-gap spending measure would waive so-called pay-as-you-go spending rules, which threatened to cause automatic cuts.
Congress has often waived that rule in the past, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., objected to waiving it again.
“Do federal deficits matter?” he asked.
Paul’s effort to block the waiver, though, was rejected, with only seven other senators, all conservative Republicans, voting with him to allow the automatic cuts.
The waiver was one of the conditions Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, won in exchange for her vote in favor of the tax bill. Collins relented, for now, on other demands to stabilize the Affordable Care Act, which GOP leaders promised her they would address next year.