Spending Shutdown Showdown Fizzling Out

Issues remain, but biggest fights getting knocked out ahead of deadline

From left, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., attend a news conference at the House Triangle with the United Mine Workers of America on the Miners Protection Act, which would address expiring health care and pension benefits. Funding the miners’ benefits is one of the remaining issues that could affect the debate over government funding. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The first federal funding fight of President Donald Trump’s administration might be ending not with a bang but a whimper. 

House and Senate lawmakers negotiating an omnibus bill to fund the government through the end of September had said the biggest outstanding dispute was over cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurance companies that help lower-income people afford health care under the 2010 overhaul law.

That was among the last issues jamming up the works, especially after the White House signaled earlier this week it would not insist on money for a wall along the border with Mexico, a key Trump campaign promise. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had been among the most insistent on ensuring the payments continued as part of the spending talks.

“Our major concerns in these negotiations have been about funding for the wall and uncertainty about the [Cost Sharing Reduction] payments, crucial to the stability of the marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. We’ve now made progress on both of these fronts,” the California Democrat said in a Wednesday statement. “More progress needs to be made on some of our priorities, and we continue to be concerned about poison pill riders that are still in this legislation.”

“Our appropriators are working in good faith toward a bipartisan proposal to keep government open,” Pelosi added.

Cost-sharing payments

Sources familiar with the talks said the Trump administration committed Wednesday afternoon to keep the subsidy money flowing as it had under President Barack Obama, despite some Republicans arguing that stopping the potentially illegal payments would help force the rollback of the 2010 law.

“The Constitution provides that ‘No money may be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.’ Congress has made no appropriation for Obamacare cost sharing reduction payments,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said in a statement Wednesday as word broke out that the administration would continue the cost-sharing payments.

“Therefore, we believe making these payments without congressional approval is both clearly illegal and unconstitutional,” Walker continued. House GOP leaders had sued to stop the payments, and a district court has ruled in their favor, providing Republicans further ammunition against the practice. 

But the decision to continue providing money for people to buy health insurance helped defuse tensions over the funding debate. 

“My position has been, the administration needs to do this,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said. “From a substantive standpoint … that’s what they ought to do.”

“My expectation is they’ll do it,” the Maryland Democrat said. “What I trust is the price of not doing it will be very high.”

The administration’s assurances could allow for the work on the spending bill to wrap up, though there were other issues still on the table, including how to pay for health care benefits for miners, a priority for members of both parties from coal states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the cost of Medicaid assistance in Puerto Rico.

Good news

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer pointed to the fact that work was not done, but he again sounded upbeat about an agreement after a seeming resolution to the cost-sharing conundrum Wednesday.

“It is good that once again the president seems to be backing off his threat to hold health care and government funding hostage,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.

“Like the withdrawal of money for the wall, this decision brings us closer to a bipartisan agreement to fund the government and is good news for the American people,” Schumer added.

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said “there are a number of issues” remaining on the 2017 spending bills, but the New Jersey Republican expressed optimism about negotiators’ progress.

“I think sometimes when we get close to the end, a lot of things are resolved very quickly. I’m hopeful,” Frelinghuysen said.

It wasn’t clear how much influence the Trump administration had on the contents of the 11 spending bills that are expected to be included in the catch-all package, or how different they would have been had they been allowed to clear during the lame-duck session at the end of 2016.

“As I understand what happened, we were all ready to go last December and finish up our work, and the incoming administration asked us to instead do a [continuing resolution] through April 28,” Sen. Susan Collins said. “And I thought it was a mistake.”

The Maine Republican is chairwoman of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations subcommittee.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — another of the Senate Appropriations “cardinals” who leads a spending subcommittee — said she was optimistic the omnibus would get done including a full spending bill for the Interior Department and the EPA. That bill tends to be among the most contentious in such package.

Another CR?

But Murkowski was among the Senate appropriators who were beginning to concede that another continuing resolution will be needed to keep the government going as members and staff actually write an omnibus bill. She said the process of arriving at a final text might not happen by the Friday deadline.

“It’s my understanding that we’re probably going to have to hold over a few days to do that,” the Alaska Republican said.

If a deal is reached by early Thursday, moving to a week-long stopgap bill could allow the Senate to leave for the weekend rather efficiently.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who is also the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said there likely would not be objections to a one-week stopgap once an agreement is reached on a broader bill.

“The theory was if we could reach an agreement, we would give them next week to finish it, the paper work,” the Illinois Democrat said Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Durbin said Democrats had made clear they would not support such a stopgap bill to avert a shutdown without an agreement on funding for the rest of this fiscal year at hand.

Rep. Tom Cole signaled that once there was a final deal on the health care law payments, the remaining issues might fall to the side.

“There are still a few riders out here,” said the Oklahoma Republican, a senior House appropriator. “We’re not very far away. So, you know, as you get closer to a deal usually the appetite to finish it gets stronger on both sides and kind of brings it together, so I hope that happens here.”

Bridget Bowman, Jennifer Shutt and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.

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