After Self-Created Drama, Trump Signs Omnibus

By John T. Bennett
12,000

The week of March 19 neared its close as Washington waited. Veto or signature. Funding or shutdown.

Remember? It snowed this week. 

Here’s what Roll Call’s photographers saw through their glass:

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

12,000

Congress appears ready to delay action indefinitely on a number of pressing policy issues.

The 2018 omnibus spending bill could be the last major legislative package to advance this year, a reality that spurred members in both chambers to lobby leadership to attach their pet project legislation to it.

“We realize it could be the last vehicle before December that has any kind of momentum,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said.

While it’s possible either chamber could pass standalone policy measures, optimism is low that legislation on more controversial issues will clear both the House and Senate, and earn the support of President Donald Trump.

The omnibus does tackle some pressing issues for members like additional funding to help bolster the security of the U.S. electoral system — but provisions related to hot-button topics including health insurance and immigration were not included. And given the hyper-partisan political environment and upcoming midterms, legislation on those issues is not expected to advance in the coming months.

That means delayed action on, among other things, stabilizing the insurance markets created by the 2010 health care law, and addressing the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, possibly until after the November elections or longer.

Despite a last-minute lobbying campaign by the White House to include a short-term DACA extension in the spending bill, it was ultimately rejected amid opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.

But the issue is not going away. And political tensions over the future of the DACA program are likely to increase deeper into election season.

Democrats on the campaign trail will almost certainly continue to put the blame on Trump for trying to end the program, criticize the White House for undermining negotiations on Capitol Hill, and blast congressional Republicans for failing to act.

House Republicans, facing intense backlash from their political base, are likely to continue to oppose any legislation that doesn’t have Trump’s backing or would lead to anything that could be characterized as mass amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants, like some of the Senate proposals.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who already devoted a week of floor time to the issue that yielded no successful legislative vehicle, has given no indication he plans to schedule another floor debate in the coming months.

While lawmakers and the White House continue to discuss a possible compromise, an ongoing court case on Trump’s decision to terminate the DACA program has taken away some of the urgency to act.

The verdict? Pending a major breakthrough, action on immigration could be punted to next year at the earliest.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander spent months selling the benefits of his health care legislation to his colleagues. The Tennessee Republican touted the potential reductions in premium costs and, along with Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, kept the issue at the forefront of the omnibus discussions over the past few weeks.

Ultimately, the legislation, which would have provided $30 billion to a state reinsurance fund over three years and three years of funding for the so-called cost-sharing subsidies, was not included amid objections from conservative Republicans and Democrats.

And the disagreements on the issue are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

“If this debate about the mechanics of how you apply 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 or replacing it,” Alexander said, referring to the law that prevents federal money from funding abortions.

Some Republicans are loath to take any action to stabilize the insurance markets after failing to fulfill an eight-year campaign promise to overhaul the health care law. And Democrats continue to push back against any legislation that they believe either undermines the current law or doesn’t provide enough federal resources to lower premium costs.

While the White House has signaled support for some of the proposed health measures, the Trump administration can continue to take executive actions to overhaul the law.

The verdict? Another year will come and go without Congress passing any major legislation related to the insurance markets.

Democrats likely lost their last chance to try to force Republicans to pass legislation to ensure the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 elections continues uninterrupted.

No provision was included in the omnibus to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, despite increasing calls from Democrats for such a measure.

Following the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Democrats amped up the pressure on Republicans to pass legislation to shield Mueller from the same fate.

McConnell, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other GOP leaders say they are confident Trump will not fire the special counsel — a move that would surely launch impeachment talks and drive an already chaotic White House to the brink.

“I would love to have seen protection for Mueller, but I’m going to take the majority leader and the vast majority of my Republican colleagues who have commented that they understand … it would be the beginning of the end of this presidency if he were to fire Mueller,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the chamber’s Intelligence panel.

Mueller, who is investigating, among other things, possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 campaign, has been in the president’s crosshairs since the investigation launched. Trump, according to media reports, has considered firing Mueller. Recent revelations have even prompted some Republicans to begin speaking out.

“We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don’t create a constitutional crisis,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Trump critic.

The verdict? Congress is unlikely to protect Mueller through legislation. But should Trump do the unthinkable, it would bring Congress to a standstill, cripple the remaining GOP legislative agenda and eclipse everything else in Washington.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

12,000

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s $139,000 replacement doors have earned him a trip to the principal’s office.

In a letter dated March 22, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy requested a briefing from Zinke following news reports surrounding the procurement of replacement doors for his office at the Interior Department.

The pricey doors revelation comes as a number of Trump administration Cabinet officials have encountered scrutiny for personal spending on the taxpayer dime. For Zinke in particular, the doors have contributed to a growing list of spending concerns, mainly surrounding the former Montana congressman’s travel transportation and security detail.

“The Committee is aware of numerous reports about the need for replacement doors at the Department and allegations of excess cost,” Gowdy wrote. “To help the Committee evaluate this matter, please provide a briefing on plans to the replace the doors.”

A response from the Interior Department was not immediately available.

Zinke has expressed a similar level of outrage that the doors cost as much as they do, blaming the high price tag on the procurement process that drove up the cost. In an appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee last week, Zinke blamed historic preservation review laws for most of the problem.

“A lot of the issue is on historic buildings, you have to have follow such stringent rules,” Zinke said. “We’re bound by those rules. I don’t even have a choice.”

Zinke said that following the reports of the cost he was able to bring the price down from the originally reported $139,000 to $75,000.

The Interior Department main office building is located blocks away from the White House in Washington, D.C., and was dedicated during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. It is included on the National Register of Historic Places, which means changes are subject to a federal preservation review.

“I think a little more flexibility or common sense can be put in,” Zinke added during the hearing. “And sometimes, our rules — good intent, but when you’re bound by a law that doesn’t make sense, this is where working together can be helpful.”

Critics, including Democrats and environmental groups, have jumped on the expensive doors and Zinke travel expenses as ammunition in their efforts to oppose actions taken by the administration over the past year. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, blasted such expenditures at a time where Zinke was proposing raising entrance fees at some of the country’s most popular national parks.

Ryan Zinke may have thought his $139,000 door could shut out the American people objecting to his unprecedented attack on public lands, but they seemingly can’t stop Congress from demanding answers about his abuse of taxpayer funds,” said Lena Moffitt, a director for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.

Watch: A Look Back at Gowdy’s Time in Congress


Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

12,000

The Senate cleared the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package early Friday, less than 24 hours ahead of what would have been a government shutdown.

Following the 65-32 vote, north of the 60 votes needed for passage, the massive bill will now head to President Donald Trump for his expected signature.

Before the Senate could vote on the measure, leaders had to resolve objections large and small.

Behind the scenes Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, pointedly objected to language providing for naming the White Clouds Wilderness in his home state for former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Andrus, who died last year, was a longtime political rival of Risch, dating to Risch’s time as majority leader of the Idaho state senate.

The omnibus agreement arrived from the House carrying a provision that would make law language to name the wilderness area, authored by Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Watch: McConnell: Omnibus Not ‘Perfect’ But Contains Victories

According to aide familiar with the discussions, Risch would not allow a unanimous consent request to speed up a final vote on the $1.3 trillion bill without assurances from the House that it would take up his fix.

The cause for objection from Sen. Rand Paul was more public and predictable.

He allowed the vote to go forward after sharing highlights from roughly a quarter of the 2,232-page bill on Twitter, which includes all 12 of the regular appropriation bills for fiscal 2018, which run through the end of September.

“Victory for conservatives today is that all of America now knows what a budget busting bomb this bill is. Hopefully, today’s battle will embolden conservatives to descend on Congress and demand Constitutional government,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Paul’s Senate colleagues were eager to insist on the votes and send the bill to Trump’s desk. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained to reporters Thursday that the administration is fully on board.

“We do not control the Senate,” Mulvaney said, “So we had to give Democrats something. ... We had to give away things we didn’t want to give away.”

Paul and Risch were far from the only lawmakers concerned about the contents of spending package or the process of voting. It sailed through the House less than 24 hours after the text was released, where the only real suspense was about the vote on the rule for floor consideration.

The House vote on final passage was 256-167.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul’s senior senator, had moved to limit debate on the bill earlier Thursday, ensuring that the legislation could get through the Senate before the end of the weekend, regardless of any objections.

“Months of in-depth, bicameral, bipartisan negotiations and committee work have led up to this point. The result is legislation that neither side sees as perfect, but which contains a host of significant victories and important achievements on behalf of the American people,” McConnell said earlier Thursday.

“First and foremost, in my view, this bill will mark the end of disproportionate and harmful cuts to Department of Defense funding,” he said. “It delivers the largest year-on-year increase in defense spending in fifteen years. These new funding levels will ensure the training and tools available to our servicemembers remain on the cutting edge. And at long last, veterans will receive more transparent and more accessible care.”

Democrats also highlighted significant victories for domestic and diplomatic spending.

The bill strongly rejects the partisan package passed by House Republicans in September, which would have recklessly slashed funding for domestic priorities by $68 billion below the bipartisan agreement introduced Wednesday,” Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said. “Most importantly, this bill rejects the devastating cuts proposed by the Trump administration. These included the President’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps ensure we have clean air and drinking water.”

The package also includes a bunch of needed extensions and reauthorizations for programs from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Federal Communications Commission, as well as mandatory funds for rural communities in the West.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

12,000
Heard on the Hill

Word on the Hill: What’s Buzzing on Capitol Hill?

By Alex Gangitano
Heard on the Hill

Roll Call’s 2018 March Madness — Weekend Update

By Chris Hale