Politics

Omnibus Bill in Sight After ‘Big Four’ Meet to Iron Out Kinks

Finishing touches on $1.3 trillion package being applied

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speak to reporters following a meeting of House and Senate leaders in Speaker Paul D. Ryan's office on the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional leaders and the White House have reached a preliminary deal on a roughly $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill. GOP and Democratic aides were putting the finishing touches on the mammoth package and were expected to file it later Wednesday morning for House floor consideration.

Some issues remain unresolved as of Wednesday morning, requiring leadership attention.

The “Big Four” leaders on Capitol Hill — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — were meeting in Ryan’s office Wednesday morning.

Schumer and Pelosi left at about 10:45 a.m., saying they were hopeful a final agreement would be ready in a few hours. “We’re feeling very good about this,” Schumer said. Ryan emerged shortly after, echoing Schumer almost verbatim: “We feel like we’re in a good place.”

The tentative agreement, if finalized, would put Congress in striking distance of ending a long-running saga marked by five stopgap continuing resolutions since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, and two brief partial government shutdowns that raised questions about lawmakers’ ability to govern. 

In the final bargaining, President Donald Trump won a nearly $1.6 billion down payment on his promised barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border,  but Democrats did not get an extension of immigration protections for young adults brought to the U.S. illegally as children, or “Dreamers.” According to a source familiar with the deal, the money would be for “fencing” only, not a concrete wall, and would provide for just 33 miles of new barriers.

Trump lost out on his bid for more money to house 10,000 more undocumented immigrants in detention facilities and to hire 850 more Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents. The measure also would not cut off federal funds for so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal authorities on immigration law.  

The president successfully pushed to slash proposed funding for the Gateway Program, a $30 billion series of rail and tunnel projects to enhance Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure to ease commutes for New Jersey residents working in New York City, and vice versa. The House version of the fiscal 2018 spending bill would have set aside up to $900 million for the project, though it was not mentioned by name to avoid running afoul of the congressional earmark ban.

However, Gateway projects, including the proposed $1.5 billion Portal North Bridge replacement project and nearly $13 billion Hudson River Tunnel project, apparently could qualify for up to $541 million in fiscal 2018 funds without approval from Trump’s Transportation Department under the bill, according to a source familiar with the provision.

In addition, about $2.9 billion in grants through the Federal Transit Administration would be provided, including funds that Gateway has already applied for, though the projects are not guaranteed to receive FTA grants.

Other details of the package include:

 

  • $2.8 billion increase from fiscal 2017 for opioid addiction prevention and treatment
  • $307 million more than the Trump administration requested to combat potential midterm election cyber-meddling, plus another $380 million for election security grants
  • $2.37 billion, or an 80 percent year-over-year increase, for Child Care Development Block Grants
  • $10 billion in new infrastructure funding, including a $2.55 billion increase for the federal highway program, a $1 billion increase for so-called TIGER grants, which fund innovative road, transit, maritime and road projects, and $600 million for rural broadband deployment
  • $1.34 billion increase for the Census Bureau to help prepare for the 2020 count, double the Trump request
  • EPA is flat-funded over the prior fiscal year at $8.06 billion, avoiding steep cuts initially proposed by Trump
  • $350 million to help forgive student loans for graduates who take lower-paid government jobs
  • $2 billion for Veterans Affairs hospital maintenance and construction projects

The measure would also provide 3 to 5 percent boosts for law enforcement agencies including the U.S. Marshals Service, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

A source familiar with the talks said negotiators dropped about “100 poison pill” policy riders, including a proposal to bar federal funds for Planned Parenthood. The measure is expected to maintain existing restrictions on federal funding of abortions under the so-called Hyde and Helms amendments, while barring efforts to roll back Trump’s proposed expanded “Mexico City” policy.

There were still some unresolved issues early Wednesday, such as the fate of the so-called Fix NICS bill, which would bolster local reporting that feeds into a federal database used for background checks for firearm purchases. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it has broad bipartisan support. But Hill aides said there was still a discussion about what other gun-related measures might hitch a ride.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the House Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, wouldn’t divulge the final sticking points being ironed out by leadership, though she confirmed that the gun language remains an issue. 

“We are in the process of discussing it ... still discussing it, after they’ve been meeting all night long and they’re still discussing,” Lowey said after a Democratic caucus meeting.

From the 2017 Archives: How the Appropriations Process Is Supposed to Work

The spending package must pass before Friday at midnight, when current funding expires.

As to whether Congress would need to pass yet another stopgap to get past Friday’s deadline, Lowey said that could be the case “at some point,” adding, “hopefully we’ll get it all done.” 

The House Rules Committee is expected to meet Wednesday to report the bill to the floor for debate and a vote. The House typically observes a three-day rule, but could waive that provision and take a vote as early as Thursday.

The most recent stopgap legislation also gave appropriators a massive burst of new money to spend, including $80 billion above prior restrictions on fiscal 2018 defense-related appropriations and $63 billion more for nondefense. Those figures are $26 billion more, respectively, than what Congress initially set in the 2011 spending cut law for fiscal 2018 and before that law’s sequestration order triggered in 2013.

Negotiators worked on the bill late into the night, and by around 2 a.m. it became clear they were on a track to finish the bill.

Republican and Democratic leaders had expressed confidence on Tuesday they could finish and file the omnibus before midnight. But as the evening progressed, aides said that a dozen or more unresolved issues — some of them related to immigration — were holding up progress.

Negotiators broke off for a while in mid-evening, and there were suggestions that chances for an agreement were fading. The talks then resumed and carried on into the early morning hours.

Niels Lesniewski, Kellie Mejdrich, Jacob Fischler and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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