Top Senators Pursue 2-Year Budget Deal --6th Update

02/06/18 04:35 PM EST
By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes 

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders were on the cusp of striking a two-year budget deal Tuesday to boost federal spending levels for both the military and domestic programs, according to lawmakers and congressional aides.

An agreement was emerging, they said, that would boost military spending by $80 billion a year. The increase for nondefense spending is likely to be around $63 billion a year, though that figure could change, lawmakers said. A final agreement is expected to include funding for community health centers for two years, as well as relief for states and territories rebuilding after last year's destructive storms.

Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Tuesday they were very close to finalizing the long-sought budget agreement.

"I'm optimistic that very soon we'll be able to reach an agreement," Mr. McConnell told reporters.

Mr. Schumer said there were some issues that still needed to be resolved, but that he and Mr. McConnell were "making real progress on a spending bill that would increase the caps for both the military and middle-class priorities on the domestic side."

Striking a two-year budget deal would allow Congress to write and pass a long-term spending bill, which lawmakers had hoped to have finished last year. Instead, an interlocking fight over immigration tied up the negotiations, forcing lawmakers to pass a series of short-term spending bills.

The week's developments showed Democrats are willing to move forward with a budget deal, without having secured a victory on immigration. The separation of the two issues is certain to disappoint immigration advocates, but Democrats' attempt to tie the two fights together culminated in a partial government shutdown last month that few want to repeat.

Mr. Schumer briefed Democrats on the contours of the deal at their closed-door lunch meeting Tuesday, but didn't delve into all the details, lawmakers said.

If it is finished this week, the two-year budget agreement would lift federal spending above limits, established in a 2011 fight over the debt limit that went into effect in 2013, known as the sequester. Congress later passed two separate two-year budget deals preventing the sequester from kicking in, the last of which ended in October. Since then, Congress has kept the government funded through a series of short-term spending bills.

With the government's current funding set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Friday, House Republicans prepared to approve a bill later Tuesday that would fund the Defense Department for the rest of the year, but keep the rest of the government running only through March 23.

That bill stands little chance of passing the Senate. But House GOP lawmakers said Monday night their strategy was the only way they could secure enough votes to pass another short-term spending bill now, and get the legislation over to the Senate, which could then make its own changes and send it back.

"Everyone understands that this will probably end up being a ping-pong situation" where a bill is bounced between the House and Senate, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.) said Monday night as he left the House GOP's closed-door meeting. "And we'll see where the ball lands."

The two-year budget deal would likely get added to the short-term spending bill later in the week, once the Senate has voted to block the House spending bill. Even if both chambers pass the long-term budget agreement, congressional committees will need several weeks to translate the overall funding levels it authorizes into detailed spending legislation. So Congress will still need to pass a short-term spending bill to provide them time to do that.

A budget breakthrough this week would mark a cleaving of two issues that until now had been linked together: the government's spending and immigration. Lawmakers and congressional aides said last month's partial government shutdown had helped Democrats realize the limits of their efforts to use their leverage on spending bills to try to extract wins in the immigration debate.

Lawmakers have been trying to figure out how to handle the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. at a young age. President Donald Trump in September ended a program shielding the Dreamers from deportation, but gave Congress until March 5 to pass a replacement.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday said he was so committed to border security that he would risk shutting down the government in a future fight if an immigration deal didn't include stricter border enforcement, even though lawmakers appeared to be separating the two issues.

"If we don't change it, let's have a shutdown," Mr. Trump said during the portion of a meeting at the White House that reporters were invited to observe. "We have to strengthen our borders."

As part of a deal to reopen the government last month, Mr. McConnell promised to bring a neutral immigration bill to the Senate floor for a debate and vote that would be fair to both parties.

Mr. McConnell hasn't yet said what bill he would bring to the Senate floor, and Democrats said that could affect the final stages of the budget negotiations.

"I'm optimistic that we're going to get a deal," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D,. Mo.) said Tuesday. "The only thing that could screw this up is if Mitch McConnell made a commitment to a number of Republicans and Democrats that the base bill on immigration would be neutral and we have to make sure that that is neutral before there's a final signoff on anything. Hopefully that will get worked out also in the next few days."

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 06, 2018 16:35 ET (21:35 GMT)

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