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House passes stopgap spending bill, setting up bigger spending fight this month

Washington Post

Congress passed a short-term spending bill Thursday, avoiding a partial government shutdown in the coming days but setting up a more heated spending fight later this month.

The measure to extend government funding until Dec. 22 passed the House and Senate by comfortable margins. President Donald Trump indicated he will sign the stopgap deal, averting a partial government shutdown that had been set to take effect at 12:01 Saturday morning.

Congressional leaders of both parties went to the White House Thursday afternoon to begin talks with Trump on a long-term spending pact.

"We're all here today as a very friendly, well-unified group, well-knit-together group of people," Trump said at the top of the Oval Office meeting. "We hope that we're going to make some great progress for our country. I think that will happen, and we'll appreciate it very much."

But there are clear obstacles to any deal. Trump himself cast doubt Wednesday, telling reporters that Democrats "want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime." A shutdown over the issue, he said, "could happen."

The short-term deal passed in part because it maintained the status quo on government spending levels and policies. Both parties are preparing for a spending and policy fight as they eye a longer-term deal.

The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line conservatives who have bucked GOP leaders on past government spending bills, warned that any bipartisan deal on spending risked a Republican revolt later this month.

"It takes two bodies to put something into law, and the president's agreement to a caps deal does not mean that it is fiscally the best thing for the country," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said. "I want to avoid a headline that says President Trump's administration just passed the highest spending levels in U.S. history."

The statements have cast a pall over the high-stakes spending talks Thursday, which are expected to be an initial step in a weeks-long dance over funding the government and resolving several other partisan standoffs.

Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress, but they cannot pass spending bills alone. In the Senate, a 60-vote supermajority is required to pass most major legislation, and Republicans control 52 seats. That means negotiating with Democrats, who have pushed to maintain their own domestic spending priorities, as well as policy initiatives on immigration, health care and more.

Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., laid out a host of Democratic demands, ranging from funding for veterans and to fight the opioid crisis to passage of a bill that would grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of "dreamers" - immigrants brought without documentation to the United States as children.

Pelosi sent mixed signals on how far Democrats would go to secure their priorities, saying on one hand that "Democrats are not willing to shut government down" but on the other that they "will not leave" Washington for the holidays without a fix for dreamers.

The main source of the Democrats' leverage, however, is the GOP desire to hike military spending to more than $600 billion in 2018.

Under a 10-year budget deal struck in 2011, Congress may appropriate a maximum of $549 billion for defense programs and $516 billion for nondefense programs next year. Republican leaders have floated a $54 billion boost in defense next year and a $37 billion boost in nondefense spending; Democrats have thus far demanded equivalent increases for both.

"We need a strong national defense, but we also need a strong domestic budget," Pelosi said Thursday.

Joining the White House meeting Thursday were Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.

Mattis and Mulvaney are seen on Capitol Hill as the pivotal figures in an internal clash within the Trump administration over whether to cut a deal with Democrats to hike domestic spending to secure an increase in the military budget. Mattis has pushed internally to work with Democrats to secure a bigger military budget, while Mulvaney has argued for pursuing a harder line.

The stopgap bill set for a House vote Thursday does not change existing spending levels, and defense hawks have resisted calls to pass temporary bills into the new year, arguing that the military needs a boost.

But conservatives see it differently: They want to provoke a confrontation with Democrats and break a cycle of bipartisan deals that has led both military and nondefense discretionary spending to rise in lockstep. They are also wary of a year-end spending bill becoming a legislative "Christmas tree" that could include relief for dreamers and other Democratic priorities.

That, Meadows said, would be "not only problematic, but it will be met with such resistance that we haven't seen on the Hill for many, many years."

Meadows said he is pushing Ryan to "do short-term spending until we break the defense-nondefense connection." He said GOP leaders have expressed openness to drafting a funding bill later this month that funds the military through the remainder of the fiscal year while leaving the remainder of the federal bureaucracy subject to a weeks-long extension.

Ryan declined Thursday to confirm any such deal; Pelosi said it would be a nonstarter for Democrats. Were the House to pass such a bill, the Senate would likely send back a bipartisan measure that would include provisions that conservatives dislike. But that could win votes from House Democrats, sidelining the conservatives.

"We're going to take the speaker at his word that he's going to fight," Meadows said, adding, "If all we do is pass a bill and watch the Senate change it, and then agree to higher spending, that is not a fight."

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