Congress

House votes to avoid shutdown, continue spending talks until December

The measure passed the House on a largely party-line vote, 231-192

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee arrives in the Capitol for a meeting with House and Senate appropriators in an effort to revive spending talks and avert a second shutdown on Feb. 11, 2019. Another shutdown loomed Tuesday as the House sent a continuing resolution to the Senate, which would keep the government open until December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress moved closer to clearing another stopgap funding bill Tuesday, after the House voted to send the continuing resolution to the Senate.

The bill would stave off a funding lapse that would have begun when the current continuing resolution expires Thursday night. Once signed, it would provide lawmakers and the Trump administration another four weeks to try to reach agreement on the dozen annual spending bills that have stalled amid debate about border wall spending and how best to divide up $1.37 trillion in fiscal 2020 spending.

[House to take up Dec. 20 stopgap measure Tuesday]

The measure passed the House on a largely party-line vote, 231-192, with 10 Democrats voting against it and 12 Republicans supporting it.

“It’s with a heavy heart that I rise today in opposition to the continuing resolution,” said House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas. “By voting for the last CR, I argued at the time, we would provide enough time for appropriators in the House and the Senate to complete work on full-year appropriations bills. Unfortunately, not only has that not happened, there still has not even been an agreement reached on spending levels for those bills.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., argued the measure was necessary to keep the lights on while talks continue through Thanksgiving and into early December.

“With just days until current stopgap funding expires, we must pass a continuing resolution to keep government open and fund key priorities as we negotiate subcommittee allocations and then finalize individual appropriations bills,” Lowey said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Tuesday that staff continue to trade offers on subcommittee allocations, known as 302(b)s, and tried to tamp down concerns about a December shutdown.

“If we don’t reach agreement on our bills and the 302(b)s and the other obstacle, the wall, it would be disheartening and not bode well for the winter and spring,” he said. “Could we keep on for a while with short CRs and then come to some agreement? We could. But the more we put it off, we’re getting toward a CR for the year.”

The Alabama Republican indicated certain members of the Trump administration are opposed to a proposal House Democrats have pushed that would exempt a program that allows veterans to seek private health care in certain circumstances from regular budget caps.

That program, which used to be classified as mandatory and funded outside the annual appropriations process, moved into the discretionary column under a 2018 law. The popularity and sharp increases in spending needed for the program in the coming years has been a concern for several appropriators since that change was made.

“I thought myself then that we should have gotten some help through emergency spending or [the Defense Department] to take it over or something. It hasn’t been resolved yet and it’s a big ticket item,” Shelby said. “I always thought that when they created it with no source of funding it caused trouble for us on approps — a big problem.”

The Trump administration and lawmakers discussed an exemption for the veterans’ health care program when Congress and the White House brokered a spending caps agreement this summer. But administration officials believe that the higher spending levels are sufficient to cover the cost, according to a senior Senate GOP aide.

Vehicle change

Before the House voted on the stopgap, lawmakers in that chamber tried to change the vehicle from a spending package that passed the House and the Senate earlier this year to a commemorative coin bill. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, objected, forcing the House to use the spending package that carried the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD bills.

A Senate Appropriations Committee aide said House Democrats’ decision to put the CR on the only spending package that has passed both the House and Senate, which would be needed to conference those bills, raised concerns among Senate appropriators.

The temporary funding bill, which President Donald Trump is expected to sign, would continue to fund discretionary programs mostly at current spending levels, though with a few exceptions and additions of unrelated policy items. The measure would:

  • Increase Census Bureau spending to a rate of $7.3 billion to accommodate the 2020 decennial count.
  • Extend three Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provisions, currently set to expire Dec. 15, through March 20.
  • Continue various health care programs, including funding for community health centers and teaching hospitals.

Republicans grumbled about a provision that would block a $7.6 billion scheduled cancellation of authorized highway spending on July 1, 2020. The provision was included as a budget gimmick to keep overall costs down on the 2015 highway law.

The Congressional Budget Office doesn’t “score” repeal of the provision as increasing deficits, however, since the highway program is assumed to continue at current funding levels anyway. But Republicans argued it was fiscally irresponsible, and Budget Committee ranking member Steve Womack, R-Ark., had filed an amendment to offset the cut with $76 billion in mandatory spending cuts over a decade, equal to the increase in authorized highway funding that would occur under the provision.

Troop pay raise, terror victims fund

The stopgap bill, which only lasts through Dec. 20, also would specifically ensure a 3.1 percent pay increase for U.S. troops that’s supposed to take effect Jan. 1. During the last few weeks GOP leaders have repeatedly criticized Democrats for not working with Republicans to advance the annual defense funding bill, citing the military pay raise as collateral damage.

Democrats have disputed the charge, arguing the pay raise will occur under current law even without first passing the fiscal 2020 Defense bill.

“That is ridiculous,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Oct. 31. “Regardless of the action we take in this chamber, the men and women of our military will see a raise in January. No matter what we do, they are going to get that raise. This well-deserved raise is based on a statutory formula that does not need to be authorized by the legislation before us. In fact, neither the House nor the Senate Defense appropriations bills contain any provision that is related to a pay raise.”

The stopgap also includes an expansion of benefits for victims of terrorism. The provision is designed to ensure that widows and children of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington can access two funds for benefits: one created specifically for the 2001 attacks, and a separate fund created for victims of state-sponsored terrorism.

The latter fund, established in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending law, was aimed chiefly at the U.S. hostages in Iran who were held from 1979 to 1981. The stopgap measure extends the life of that fund for four years, through 2030, and splits the fund in half to divide payments between victims of Sept. 11 and other terrorism victims. It also extends benefits to a group of U.S. embassy hostages in Iran who were previously ineligible.

Trump signed legislation in July that made the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent. Funding for the separate U.S. Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Fund comes mostly from criminal and civil penalties and forfeited property paid to the U.S., along with a one-time startup appropriation of $1 billion appropriation in fiscal 2017.

The expansion of benefits provided by the stopgap would cost about $1.1 billion over the next 10 years, according to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

David Lerman and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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