US Budget Battle: House votes to avert federal shutdown, outlook for passing Senate is dim

The House voted by a near party-line 230-197 vote to approve the legislation late Thursday evening.

U.S. Capitol (Image from Pixabay user Proulain) (By Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided House voted Thursday to prevent a government shutdown after an eleventh-hour deal brought conservatives aboard. But the GOP-written measure faced gloomy prospects in the Senate, and it remained unclear whether lawmakers would be able to find a way to keep federal offices open past a Friday night deadline.

The House voted by a near party-line 230-197 vote to approve the legislation, which would keep agency doors open and hundreds of thousands of federal employees at work through Feb. 16. The measure is designed to give White House and congressional bargainers more time to work through disputes on immigration and the budget that they've tangled over for months.

House passage was assured after the House Freedom Caucus reached an accord with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The leader of the hard-right group, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said Ryan promised future votes on extra defense spending and on a conservative, restrictive immigration bill, though a source familiar with the discussion said Ryan didn't guarantee an immigration vote. That person was not authorized to speak publicly about the private negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meadows also spoke to President Donald Trump.

Just 11 Republicans opposed the measure, mostly conservatives and a pair of moderate Hispanic lawmakers. Six Democrats, a mix of Hispanic and moderate legislators, backed the bill.

But most Senate Democrats and some Republicans were expected to vote no when it reaches that chamber later Thursday. Democrats were hoping to spur slow-moving immigration talks, while a handful of Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were pressing for swifter action on immigration and a long-sought Pentagon spending boost.

Senate rejection would leave the pathway ahead uncertain with only one guarantee: finger-pointing by both parties.

The GOP controls the Senate 51-49 and will need substantial Democratic backing to reach 60 — the number needed to end Democratic delaying tactics. Republicans were all but daring Democrats to scuttle the bill and force a shutdown because of immigration, which they said would hurt Democratic senators seeking re-election in 10 states that Trump carried in 2016.

"Senator Schumer, do not shut down the federal government," said Ryan, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who's sought to use Democratic support for the spending bill as leverage to win an immigration deal. Ryan added: "It is risky. It is reckless. And it is wrong."


House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., accompanied by Press Secretary AshLee Strong (Associated Press Image)

Underscoring the political stakes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned GOP senators in an email obtained by The Associated Press that voting against the measure "plays right into Democrats hand" — presumably because it would dilute the argument that Democrats killed the legislation.

Democrats said voters would fault Republicans because they control Congress and the White House. They also noted that Trump rejected a proposed bipartisan deal among a handful of senators that would have resolved the conflict over how to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

"You have the leverage. Get this done," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said about Republicans.

Trump himself weighed in from Pennsylvania, where he flew to help a GOP candidate in a special congressional election.

"I really believe the Democrats want a shutdown to get off the subject of the tax cuts because they're doing so well," he said.

If the measure stalls in the Senate, the next steps were murky.

Barring a last-minute immigration and spending pact between the two parties, lawmakers said a measure financing agencies for just several days was possible to build pressure on negotiators to craft a deal. Also imaginable: lawmakers working over the weekend with a shutdown underway — watched by a public that has demonstrated it has abhorred such standoffs in the past.

Shadowing everything is this November's elections. Trump's historically poor popularity and a string of Democratic special election victories have fueled that party's hopes of capturing control of the House and perhaps the Senate.

As he's done since taking office a year ago, Trump was dominating and confusing the jousting, at times to the detriment of his own party. He tweeted that the month-long funding measure should not contain money for a children's health insurance program — funds his administration has expressly supported — then the White House quickly said he indeed supports the legislation.

Congress must act by midnight Friday or the government will begin immediately locking its doors. Though the impact would initially be spotty — since most agencies would be closed until Monday — the story would be certain to dominate weekend news coverage, and each party would be gambling the public would blame the other.

In the event of a shutdown, food inspections and other vital services would continue, as would Social Security, other federal benefit programs and most military operations.

Hoping to garner more votes, Republicans added language providing six years of financing for the children's health program and delaying some taxes imposed by President Barack Obama's health care law. The health program insures nearly 9 million low-income children, and some states have nearly exhausted their funds.

But Pelosi compared the GOP bill to "having a bowl of doggy-doo and adding a cherry on top and calling it a chocolate sundae."

Most Democrats remained opposed, saying they'd relent if there also was a deal to protect around 700,000 immigrants from deportation who arrived in the U.S. as children and now are here illegally. Trump has ended an Obama-era program providing those protections and given Congress until March to restore them.

Republicans were demanding that a separate budget bill financing government for the rest of this year include big boosts for the military, and they accused Democrats of imperiling Pentagon funding. Democrats were insisting on equally large increases for domestic programs for opioid treatment and veterans — efforts that many in the GOP also back.

While that tradeoff seemed achievable, it was the immigration dispute that loomed as the biggest hurdle, and Democrats were trying to use the need to keep government financed as leverage.

"If this bill passes, there'll be no incentive to negotiate, and we'll be right back here in a month with the same problems at our feet," said Schumer.

Immigration talks among top lawmakers and White House officials have moved slowly. Trump and Republicans want it to include money for the president's promised wall along the Mexican border and other security measures.