Congress

Health care riders, farm payouts slow stopgap deal

Bill pulled from House Rules agenda late Tuesday afternoon

Montana Sen. Jon Tester is among those objecting to potential provisions in a stopgap spending bill needed to keep the government open after Sept. 30. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Trade assistance for farmers hit by retaliatory tariffs and the details of several health care program extensions were standing in the way of agreement on a stopgap funding measure Tuesday, sources said.

According to a senior Democratic aide, the bill was likely to include an increase in the Commodity Credit Corporation’s $30 billion borrowing cap that the Trump administration asked for earlier this month. But provisions on “accountability and transparency” were still under discussion, the aide said.

Without the increase in the cap, the White House wrote in an “anomalies” request to lawmakers, the agency “would have to stop making payments as soon as the borrowing ceiling is reached,” which was expected sometime after the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The Trump administration announced a $16 billion aid package in July for farmers and ranchers hit by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners.

Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a senior Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee member, later on Tuesday released a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue demanding a briefing for lawmakers on where the money from the latest round and earlier $12 billion tranche of aid has been going.

“Going forward, American farmers deserve transparency and to know these payments are going to them and not corporate agribusinesses,” DeLauro wrote.

[Draft stopgap would protect Ukraine aid, deny wall flexibility]

Medicaid funding for U.S. territories running low on cash appears headed for inclusion in the plan, according to sources familiar with the talks. The provisions for increased Medicaid matching funds aren’t likely to benefit Puerto Rico, though other territories could still benefit. Two sources familiar with the talks said that issue had been resolved.

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican,  wrote in a letter Friday to congressional leaders that without more money in the stopgap measure, managed care plans won’t be able to negotiate the higher reimbursement rates necessary for providers to serve Medicaid patients.

The letter says required funding cuts under the 2016 financial oversight law for Puerto Rico would result in additional loss of coverage, plus three new HIV drugs won’t be covered and planned coverage of hepatitis C drugs won’t go forward.

However as noted in the letter, current projections show existing Medicaid block grant funds possibly lasting until March 2020, which may have given some negotiators pause.

The stopgap funding bill, expected to run through Nov. 21, was also expected to include a package of health care program extensions, such as funding for community health centers. But a House Democratic aide said the package hadn’t been finalized yet. 

On the trade mitigation issue, House Agriculture Committee Democrats urged their leadership Monday to reconsider and include the White House-backed language on agricultural assistance in the continuing resolution.

“Although we mutually have concerns with President Trump’s approach to trade negotiations, we refuse to engage in the same tactics that punish our constituents and harm our communities that rely on agriculture,” said Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota as well as Filemon Vela of Texas and Jim Costa of California, who chair Agriculture subcommittees on farm commodities and livestock, respectively.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, also an Agriculture Committee member, said Tuesday he wants to see the borrowing cap lifted as part of the continuing resolution as well. 

But other Democrats were opposed.

“I want to see the tariffs taken care of so we don’t have to have a socialistic system,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester said. 

Time running short

Rules had been scheduled to consider amendments to the CR at a 5 p.m. meeting Tuesday, in advance of floor debate later this week, but the absence of completed text was making that difficult. The panel removed consideration of the CR from Tuesday’s meeting agenda, shortly before it was scheduled to begin.

McGovern later said the panel could take up the stopgap measure on Wednesday, after reporting out “same-day” rule authority to bring the bill to the floor anytime through this Friday.

The discussions are ongoing with about eight legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, when current government funding expires. 

As work on a stopgap continued, Senate leaders planned to hold a procedural vote Wednesday on a package of four fiscal 2020 spending bills that already passed the House. The package includes the House’s Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water and State-Foreign Operations bills.

“There should be no reason for Democrats to vote against this first procedural step,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said on the floor Tuesday in announcing the plan. “My Democratic colleagues seem eager to bog down the process.”

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said Democrats would not support moving forward with a Defense bill until the Trump administration abandons a plan to divert $3.6 billion from military construction projects to help pay for a wall along the southern border.

“This is a stunt if I’ve ever seen one,” Schumer said on the floor. “Democrats oppose taking funding away from our troops to use on the president’s wall. And yet Leader McConnell is moving forward on the bill all the same, knowing that it lacks votes.”

[As Congress kicks off a grueling September, several spending hurdles await]

It’s not yet clear what bills Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, will bring up as a substitute to the House-passed package, if the Senate can get onto it for debate. The Alabama Republican’s committee has only approved its version of the Defense and Energy-Water bills so far, and of those only Energy-Water was reported out with bipartisan support.

Health, education funding concerns 

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Senate Republicans have to increase the allocation for that chamber’s Labor-HHS-Education bill to get Democrats’ support.

Shelby allocated about 1 percent more to the Labor-HHS-Education bill than those agencies received in the current fiscal year. That’s despite an overall 4.5 percent boost for nondefense programs in the bipartisan July budget pact as Senate Republicans steered a greater proportion of the increased funds to Homeland Security and Energy-Water spending.

The Senate’s Defense bill would get almost 3 percent more than the current year under Shelby’s allocations. 

In a brief interview, Shelby hinted he might be open to some changes to his subcommittee funding limits, known as 302(b)s, but made no promises. “We thought they were fair,” he said. “Democrats want some changes. We’re talking to them a little bit. ... There’s always some paths.”

Durbin said the sequencing of consideration of appropriations bills is another issue. He said Democrats “certainly want to make sure the Defense bill, which is the plum in the eye of most Republicans, is not finished early so that the Republicans start napping at the meetings.”

David Lerman, Ellyn Ferguson and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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