House leaders scramble to win support for budget deal ahead of midnight deadline
Congressional leaders worked Thursday to muscle through a sweeping two-year bipartisan budget deal that would add more than a half-trillion dollars in federal spending as the clock ticked toward a midnight shutdown deadline.
The Senate is expected to start voting on the legislation Thursday afternoon, but the tougher task will be getting it through the House. Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were balking after the deal was unveiled Wednesday — the former angry about the spending jolt, the latter fuming about the lack of protections for young immigrants at risk for deportation under the Trump administration.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed confidence Thursday that the bill, which delivers a military funding boost sought by the GOP alongside increases in domestic spending favored by Democrats, would pass.
“There is widespread agreement in both parties that we have cut the military too much, that our service members are suffering as a result, and that we need to do better,” he said.
The bill’s impact goes well beyond the Pentagon, however — renewing several large health-care programs, suspending the national debt limit for a year, and extending billions of dollars of expiring business tax breaks. The cost of those provisions exceeds $560 billion, though lawmakers included some revenue-raising offsets, such as increases in customs fees and a sell-off from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
In comparison, the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill passed at the bottom of a global recession under President Barack Obama was estimated to cost $787 billion over 10 years. Republicans uniformly opposed that measure in their clamor for fiscal restraint in the face of growing deficits _ demands largely drowned out now in the Trump era.
This spending bill, proposed amid an economic boom, could be the last major piece of legislation passed before November’s midterm elections, barring a breakthrough on a thorny immigration debate.
Ryan, who wrote several deficit-cutting Republican budgets before becoming speaker, sought to tamp down fears that the bill could further explode the nation’s fiscal imbalance by amping up spending without spelling out offsetting cuts or revenue-raisers.
Discretionary spending — the funding Congress doles out on a year-to-year basis for the Pentagon as well as for programs such as transportation, medical research and national parks — is not the main driver of the national debt, he argued, but rather “entitlement” programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are left largely untouched by the pending deal.
“The military is not the reason we’ve got fiscal problems, it is entitlements,” he said, adding, “You get entitlement reform, you can solve a lot of these problems.”
But the massive spending bill, coming less than two months after Republicans pushed through a tax cut that stands to slash federal revenue by a trillion dollars or more over a decade, has given plenty of Republicans heartburn.
“We did a great thing with the tax cut bill, and it will ultimately make revenue go up dramatically, but we’re dramatically increasing spending before we even get the benefits of the tax cuts, so it’s a bit depressing, actually,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which took an official position against the bill Wednesday.
Ryan suggested in a radio interview Thursday that he would be able to deliver a majority of Republicans — about 120 votes — meaning about half of the 193 Democrats might be necessary to pass the deal. That could be a tough sell among House Democrats, who are livid that their demands for protections for “dreamers” — immigrants brought to the United States as children now living in the country illegally — were not made part of the deal.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered a record-breaking eight-hour speech on the House floor Wednesday centered on the immigration issue, demanding assurances that immigration legislation would be debated in the House before the fiscal deal was agreed to.
Ryan on Thursday delivered a new version of his previous pledges, saying “we are committed to getting this done” — but not without conditions. “We will bring a solution to the floor, one the president will sign,” he said.
Democratic leaders have sharply rejected the outlines of an immigration bill put forth by the White House, leaving the prospects for a bill deeply unsettled.
While Pelosi’s speech was a potent gesture of support for the dreamers, she did not appear willing to whip her caucus against the budget deal. She was among the top leaders who negotiated the accord, and she has spoken positively about its domestic spending increases and other provisions.
Pelosi reiterated Thursday that she would personally vote against the bill but would not publicly urge her colleagues to vote against it.
“I’m just telling people why I’m voting the way I’m voting,” she told reporters, adding, “I fought very hard for many of the things that are in there, and I think that it’s a good bill.”
She is under fierce pressure from the liberal core of her caucus, who fear that Democrats are on the cusp of letting their biggest point of leverage slip away.
“I’m thankful to her for giving the speech, I applaud her for giving the speech,” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a leader on immigration policy, said of Pelosi on Wednesday. “Now, tomorrow, I want her to use the same kind of tenacity and muscle and perseverance to stop the Democrats from folding.”
But there were indications that many House Democrats were unwilling to stand in the way of other party priorities to secure an immigration deal. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) predicted the budget agreement would pass “overwhelmingly” on a bipartisan vote.
“I can’t go home to tell health centers that have already been handing out pink slips I didn’t vote for this, and they gave you money for a permanent fix to your problem,” she said. “I can’t go home and say to union people: Look, they’re going to try to take care of your pension problem, but I didn’t vote for it. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Democrats in the Senate have been similarly timid about using the fiscal deadline to push for action on immigration. After a brief three-day shutdown centered on the immigration issue last month, most voted to reopen the government after winning a pledge to debate the issue in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the fiscal agreement Wednesday.
Under the deal, existing spending limits would be raised by a combined $296 billion through 2019. Those caps were put in place in 2011 after a fiscal showdown between Obama and GOP congressional leaders, who demanded spending austerity.
Bipartisan deals raised the caps in 2013 and 2015, and the new agreement is the first to be struck under unified Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The agreement includes an additional $160 billion in uncapped funding for overseas military and State Department operations, and about $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires. Tax provisions would add another $17 billion to the cost of the bill.
Some of the funding is reserved for programs favored by lawmakers of both parties: research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, for instance, as well as transportation and water infrastructure. Also included are extensions of tax breaks that could add billions of dollars more to the cost of the bill.
The bill also includes a provision suspending the federal debt limit until March 1 of next year — after November’s midterm elections.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program would be extended through 2028, and the federal fund for community health centers would see a two-year extension. The bill also abolishes the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a body established in the 2010 Affordable Care Act with the power to reduce the payments Medicare makes to health providers.
The legislation setting out the deal is expected to contain yet another deadline, March 23, giving congressional appropriators time to negotiate the fine details of funding agencies for the remainder of 2018.
Trump gave the accord a strong endorsement in a Wednesday tweet, saying it would give Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “what he needs to keep America Great” and calling on lawmakers of both parties to “support our troops and support this Bill!”
But influential conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth railed against the spending boost Wednesday. Leaders of advocacy groups funded by brothers Charles and David Koch said in a statement that the deal was “a betrayal of American taxpayers and a display of the absolute unwillingness of members of Congress to adhere to any sort of responsible budgeting behavior.”
Many Republican lawmakers did not see their vote in those terms. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chairs an appropriations subcommittee and pushed for months for a broad spending accord, said the deal would get lawmakers off a “treadmill” of short-term funding patches.
“Frankly, it will free up time for us to deal with other issues,” he said. “It provides for stability, certainty, predictability, and that’s not a small thing.”
Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.), a past chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc that routinely pushed for spending cuts, said Wednesday that he was inclined to vote for the deal. The benefit of the Pentagon funding boost, he said, outweighed the risk of increasing nondefense spending
“A lot of us as conservatives, we’re having to go through this internal debate,” he said. “I think once everybody just kind of sits down rationally and says, ‘What happens if I vote yes?’ You know, that’s a better path for us to be on than if I vote no and then all of a sudden Nancy Pelosi is telling Paul Ryan what she needs. So I think it’s pretty simple.”