Congress returns to work days before possible government shutdown

Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill Monday facing the prospect of a government shutdown by the end of the week and a politically perilous decision on whether to attempt another overhaul of the health insurance law known as Obamacare.

After years of avoiding the kind of budget brinksmanship that led to a shutdown in 2013, Congress is once again bracing for a series of high-stakes negotiations that will decide whether hundreds of thousands of Marylanders employed by the federal government will show up to work next week.

Complicating the politics of the showdown is that President Donald Trump's 100th day in office falls on Saturday — a mark guaranteed to generate media analysis about his wins and losses. The White House is eager for a few more wins, and Trump has planned a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Saturday to promote them.

As they return to Washington after a two-week recess, some Republicans hope an emerging health care proposal could clear the House this week and help the party rebound from last month's failed Obamacare repeal. But the plan may also get in the way of negotiations over funding.

Although lawmakers in both parties and Trump himself have indicated a desire to avoid a shutdown, the uncertainty of how Congress will reach that goal is palpable. Government funding runs out on Friday, and the Trump administration began taking preliminary steps late last week to shutter agencies in case it becomes necessary.

"It's too early to tell," said Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "The pieces are still falling into place."

Last-minute machinations over the $1 trillion funding legislation are a particularly anxiety-inducing exercise in Maryland, where some 300,000 people work directly for the federal government. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, scolded lawmakers for "playing chicken with funding federal programs and services."

But Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he is confident a shutdown can be avoided and that the House can also approve a health care bill. In an interview Friday, Harris said he was optimistic about the fledgling health care agreement, but cautioned that he had not yet seen the text of the measure.

If Republican leaders decided to hold a vote on health care next week, he said, Congress could simply pass a one- or two-week extension of current funding to keep federal agencies open.

"There's no reason to have that," said Harris, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, when asked if he is confident lawmakers can avert a shutdown.

"The bottom line is, with the Republicans in charge of the Congress and the presidency, there really won't be a shutdown showdown as there was under President Obama."

White House officials were sounding confident over the weekend.

"I don't think anybody foresees or expects or wants a shutdown next week," Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on "Fox News Sunday."

Republicans were nearing an agreement last week that would retain so-called essential health benefits — such as a requirement that insurers cover maternity care — but also allow states to opt out of those mandates. Conservatives believe eliminating the requirements would lower premiums, while liberals worry that doing so will increase the cost of routine care.

But the GOP is walking a tightrope on the law, despite running on the issue for four election cycles. As lawmakers embrace provisions that appeal to conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, they risk losing votes from centrists.

There had been optimism throughout March, meanwhile, that lawmakers would strike a bipartisan agreement on funding at least some portions of the government while allowing others to operate at current spending levels. That confidence was based in part on the notion that lawmakers would mostly ignore Trump's recommendations to cut deeply into some parts of the federal bureaucracy, and expand elsewhere.

By early last week, some in the White House began to push back on that approach. Mulvaney said at the time that funding for the president's proposed border wall with Mexico was a top demand in the catchall funding package, along with a provision to give the administration more power to withhold funding from so-called sanctuary cities with immigrant-friendly policies.

"We expect money for border security in this bill," White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We'd expect the priorities of the president to be reflecting" in the short-term spending bill.

Both of those ideas are anathema to Democrats, and it is not clear whether they would survive a filibuster in the Senate. In the House, it is possible Republican leaders will need to secure support from a small number of Democrats to make up for any defections within their own party.

At issue is current fiscal-year funding to keep the government running through the end of September. Congress will likely revisit all of the same policy fights in a more substantial way this summer for the legislation that will authorize spending for Trump's first full fiscal year in office.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said he is uncertain about the prospects of a funding agreement this week.

"It's hard to say. I need to see what happens when we get back," the Baltimore Democrat said. "I need to see what the climate is."

But Cummings said he believes Democrats are ready to fight aggressively against funding for a border wall, even if taking that stand leads to a shutdown. Cummings said he doubted the wall would be effective and argued that, regardless, taxpayers should not be on the hook for it.

"He said 50 million times that the wall would be paid for by the Mexican people," Cummings said. "That ain't happening."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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