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Sweeping budget deal would add $400 billion in federal spending

  • Author: Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis, The Washington Post
  • Updated: February 7, 2018
  • Published February 7, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Congressional leaders on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping budget deal that would add about $400 billion in federal spending over the next two years, delivering the military funding boost demanded by President Donald Trump alongside the increase in domestic programs sought by Democrats.

With a Thursday midnight government shutdown looming, the accord holds the promise to break a months-long partisan standoff centered around federal spending, though some roadblocks remain.

According to outlines of the budget deal shared by congressional aides, existing spending caps written into law would be lifted by a combined $315 billion through 2019. About $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Top Senate leaders of both parties called the deal a breakthrough and a prelude to more cooperation between the parties.

"This bill represents a significant bipartisan step forward," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I hope we can build on this bipartisan momentum and make 2018 a year of significant achievement for Congress, for our constituents and for the country we all love."

"This budget deal is the first real sprout of bipartisanship, and it should break the long cycle of spending crises that have snarled this Congress and hampered our middle class," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The plan could see initial votes in the Senate as soon as Wednesday afternoon, but opposition to the deal was mounting in the House, where conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats both found reasons to fume.

In one late-developing wrinkle, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that she and "a large number" of fellow Democrats will oppose a spending deal to keep the government open unless she's guaranteed a vote on immigration legislation.

The move came amid rising fury from House liberals and immigration activists as congressional leaders appeared on the cusp of announcing a massive two-year budget deal without a fix for "dreamers." Although it was not immediately clear how many Democrats would follow Pelosi's lead, her announcement raised new uncertainty about whether congressional leaders would be able to finalize the deal as planned Wednesday.

The rumored budget deal to bust spending caps for the military and domestic programs and pile hundreds of billions of dollars onto the debt already faced a threatened rebellion from the right, as House conservatives fumed about the increased spending.

In the Senate, McConnell brought a government shutdown to an end last month by guaranteeing a floor debate on immigration. Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wanted the same commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"Without that commitment from Speaker Ryan, comparable to the commitment from Leader McConnell, this package does not have my support nor does it have the support of a large number of members of our caucus," Pelosi said.

Undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children are on the verge of losing their work permits after Trump ended the program that protects them from deportation. Democrats had sought to use their leverage on spending legislation to achieve a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but without success.

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said that the speaker "has already repeatedly stated we intend to do a DACA and immigration reform bill – one that the president supports." Trump moved last year to end the DACA program, which has given legal status to hundreds of thousands of dreamers, as soon as next month.

Senate Democratic aides believe that the budget deal contains numerous wins for the minority party, starting with major increases to domestic programs that the party has championed. The figures negotiated represent an equal increase for defense and nondefense spending over the levels set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

But with the budget deal not expected to address the dreamers or any other immigration issue, Pelosi has to answer to angry members of her base and try to placate them.

She is facing massive internal pressure from immigrant supporters in her caucus, who have pushed relentlessly in recent months to use what little leverage they have in the House minority to secure protections for DACA recipients. Of 193 voting House Democrats, only 45 supported the deal that reopened the government after a three-day shutdown last month.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., an outspoken leader of the party's Latino bloc, said Tuesday that any budget deal that does not protect DACA recipients would represent "a complete betrayal of a key, core principle" for Democrats and compared it to party leaders agreeing to close down Planned Parenthood clinics or ending federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

"Look, I can't make it any clearer," he said. "I would have to go back to the Democratic caucus and denounce any such proposal and anybody that was involved in making it. I cannot be a Democrat in good standing if they're not going to share values."

Pelosi made the announcement as she commandeered the House floor in an unusual maneuver, using rules that allow House leaders to speak on the floor as long as they want. She used the time to tell the stories of one DACA recipient after another.

"Why should we in the House be treated in such a humiliating way when the Republican Senate leader has given that opportunity in a bipartisan way to his membership? What's wrong? There's something wrong with this picture," Pelosi said.

She said that House Democrats met earlier Wednesday to discuss the situation and decided on the approach.

Pelosi's dramatic House floor speech, which stretched for several hours, came the morning after top Senate leaders said they were close to finalizing the sweeping long-term budget deal.

The House passed a short-term measure Tuesday evening that would fund the government past the midnight Thursday deadline and avert a second partial shutdown in less than a month.

The House bill, which passed 245 to 182, would fund most agencies through March 23 but is a nonstarter in the Senate because of Democratic opposition.

But the top Senate leaders of both parties told reporters earlier in the day that a breakthrough was at hand on a longer-term budget deal. Spending has vexed the Republican-controlled Congress for months, forcing lawmakers to rely on multiple short-term patches.

Despite the optimism, no agreement was finalized, and even as congressional leaders were sounding an upbeat note, Trump was raising tensions by openly pondering a shutdown if Democrats did not agree to his immigration policies.

"I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at a White House event focused on crime threats posed by some immigrants. "If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety . . . let's shut it down."

Trump's remarks appeared unlikely to snuff out the negotiations, which mainly involved top congressional leaders and their aides – not the president or his White House deputies – and have largely steered clear of the explosive immigration issue.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon that Trump was not pushing for the inclusion of immigration policies in the budget accord, something that would upend the sensitive talks.

"I don't think that we expect the budget deal to include specifics on the immigration reform," she said. "But we want to get a deal on that."

The agreement McConnell and Schumer are contemplating, with input from Ryan and Pelosi, would clear the way for a bipartisan accord that would break through the sharp divides that helped prompt a three-day government shutdown last month.

Under tentative numbers discussed by congressional aides who were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations, defense spending would get an $80 billion boost above the $549 billion slated for 2018. Nondefense spending would rise by $63 billion from its current $516 billion. The 2019 budget would include similar increases.

"Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear," Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "We support an increase in funding for our military and our middle class. The two are not mutually exclusive. We don't want to do just one and leave the other behind."

Among the other issues that could be addressed in the deal is an increase in the federal debt limit, which could be reached as soon as early March, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

A disaster aid package aimed at the victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires is also part of the talks, potentially adding about $90 billion or more to the deal's overall price tag. That provision could help win support from lawmakers representing affected areas in California, Florida and Texas, but further repel conservatives concerned about mounting federal spending.

Even the rumors of a coming deal were enough to send some conservative hard-liners reeling at the potential increase in federal spending.

"This is a bad, bad, bad, bad – you could say 'bad' a hundred times – deal," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. "When you put it all together, a quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar increase in discretionary spending – not what we're supposed to be doing."

But Republican leaders think they can sell the deal to rank-and-file members by highlighting the massive boost in defense spending that Trump and his defense advisers have wanted for months.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Congress should "not let disagreements on domestic policy continue to hold our nation's defense hostage." He warned that a failure to pass long-term funding would imperil troop paychecks, inhibit the maintenance of planes and ships, stunt recruiting and otherwise harm military readiness.

"To carry out the strategy you rightly directed we develop, we need you to pass a budget now," he said.

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