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Congress passes spending bill to avoid shutdown, set up future funding fight

Lawmakers approved a short-term spending bill Thursday to avoid a weekend shutdown of the federal government even as they set up a potentially more contentious battle that will fall just days before Christmas.

Hours before government funding was set to expire, the House voted mostly along party lines to pass a stop-gap measure to keep federal agencies open through Dec. 22. The Senate, moving with unusual haste, backed the bill about an hour later.

The legislation was aimed at buying congressional leaders more time to craft a bill to fund the government through September, but it underscored the challenges Republicans face in trying to appease conservatives within their ranks while also courting support from Democrats they may need for a final bill.

"The parties are going in opposite directions," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who opposed the bill. "I think it's going to be hard."

Voting in the House and Senate capped a rush of activity Thursday in which Republican and Democratic leaders met with President Donald J. Trump to discuss a more robust spending bill.

"We are here to make progress. We have some important issues that we share with you," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told Trump in the Oval Office, calling attention to the nation's opioid crisis and an expired children's health insurance program as areas of common ground.

"All things that have bipartisan support in the Congress," Pelosi said.

"That's very true," Trump replied.

Pelosi later described the meeting as "productive" but said in a joint statement with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that “nothing specific has been agreed to."

Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over fundamental aspects of government funding, including how much more money should be spent on non-defense programs. Many Democrats also want to use their leverage to force a solution for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — many of whom have lived in the United States for most of their lives.

Trump ended a program in September put in place by President Barack Obama that shielded those so-called "dreamers" from deportation and allowed them to work legally.

Pelosi said lawmakers would not leave Washington this month without addressing that program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Cummings agreed that was the right approach.

"I've met a lot of DACA kids and I've made a commitment to them that I was going to stick by them, thick and thin," he said.

Whatever agreement on spending emerges in the coming weeks will answer a number of outstanding questions for Maryland. Lawmakers must decide, for instance, whether to zero out spending for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, as Trump has proposed, and how deeply to cut the federal workforce.

Maryland is home to some 300,000 federal workers — roughly 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

“The shutdown threat is delayed — not resolved — and federal employees and their families will spend the next two weeks wondering about their work schedules and their paychecks,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Internal tension within the GOP remained at the fore as lawmakers jockeyed to get the short-term bill to the White House. Government funding had been set to expire Friday at midnight.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus had wanted the stop-gap bill to run through the end of December. Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and the group’s chairman, said his members expect GOP leaders to take a harder line in negotiations with Democrats over the next two weeks.

"They're saying they're going to fight on the 22nd. We're taking them at their word," Meadows said. "If they don't fight on the 22nd, I think that there will be a lot of very disappointed Republican members."

The House approved the short-term bill 235-193. The Senate backed it 81-14.

All but 14 House Democrats opposed the measure, including the Democrats in Maryland's House delegation. That put Maryland’s Democrats on the same side of the vote as Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Harris was one of 18 Republicans to vote “no.”

Harris said in a brief interview that the short-term legislation did not do enough to support the military. Some Republicans had wanted to attach long-term funding for the Pentagon to the bill, but that plan fizzled.

"It doesn't do what we need it to do for defense," said Harris, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "We have to stop the uncertainty."

Asked about the prospects for a broader spending agreement before Dec. 22, Harris said he wasn’t yet sure.

The House had been scheduled to adjourn for Christmas next week.

But Republicans in both chambers are racing to approve a $1.5 trillion tax package, a top priority for the Trump administration. Both chambers have approved the legislation and lawmakers hope to quickly resolve differences and send a bill to the White House by year's end.

Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — both Democrats — supported the short-term spending bill.

“With this stopgap in place, we must immediately work together to prevent a government shutdown that would have very damaging impacts on Maryland families and the nation,” Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “A shutdown would disrupt many crucial government services throughout the Baltimore area, and undermine everything from life-saving medical research to food safety inspections to Head Start programs educating our children.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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