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Government shutdown avoided for now as negotiations continue

Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown Friday by approving an extension of spending authority that will keep federal employees on the job for at least one more week.

With hours to go before a midnight deadline, lawmakers passed a stopgap spending measure to avoid shuttering federal agencies on President Donald Trump's 100th day in office. The move gives negotiators working on longer term legislation a few days to finish their work.

"It will carry us through next week so that a bipartisan final agreement can be reached and so that members will have time to review the legislation before we take it up," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor.

Negotiations over government funding are always closely watched in Maryland, where some 300,000 people work directly for the federal government. That is especially true this year as several state-specific provisions — such as funding for the Chesapeake Bay and a proposed new headquarters for the FBI — have come under attack.

Much of the drama over the spending bill evaporated this week when the Trump administration backed down from demands that it include funding for a border wall and a reduction in subsidies offered through Obamacare. Democrats flatly rejected both of those ideas.

Lawmakers are trying to craft legislation to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Though Republicans control both the House and Senate, the party usually needs some Democratic votes to offset defections from their own ranks.

Just how close they are to an agreement is unclear.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Southern Maryland lawmaker and No. 2 Democrat in the House, said there are still "significant items that are not resolved."

Hoyer, who vowed not to vote for another short-term funding bill, said that finishing talks by early next week will "require hard work by members and by staff and a willingness to understand that each side has some things it must have and each side has some things it cannot do. That is the nature of the legislative process."

White House spokesman Sean Spicer described the effort as "really close" and said the administrations feels "very good about making sure that the next thing will be the five-month extension to get us through the end of the fiscal year."

Democrats were wary of policy riders that some Republicans want to attach to the spending measure, including those related to abortion access, regulations on financial services professionals and one that would limit oversight of various flavors of electronic cigarettes, aides said. Also at issue is federal aid for Puerto Rico's struggling Medicaid program.

Trump balked at that spending earlier in the week.

"The Democrats want to shut government if we don't bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for [Obamacare] failure," he posted on Twitter. "NO!"

Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers "worked hard to see to it that the dollars paid by hardworking taxpayers will be spent properly — and I'm confident that the...bill will reflect that."

In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, beginning in October, Trump proposed zeroing out $73 million in funding for Chesapeake Bay clean-up, arguing that states should pay for that effort. Though his budget met with bipartisan resistance, it was never clear whether that money would become a target in the current year.

Harris, who has supported the bay funding, said it was "never in jeopardy" this year and that he was "sure it will remain in the bill next week."

The House passed the one-week spending measure 382-30 and the Senate approved it on a voice vote, sending it to the White House for Trump's signature.

"While a one-week funding extension certainly is preferable to a government shutdown, Congress and the White House must agree on a full-year budget as soon as possible," American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement.

The Republican health care bill, meanwhile, continues to face headwinds, particularly from centrist Republicans, after leaders embraced an amendment designed to appease conservative lawmakers.

The provision would allow states to waive many of the regulations Obamacare slapped on insurers, which are some of the most popular parts of the law, including mental health coverage, maternity coverage and a ban on charging higher insurance rates for patients with preexisting conditions.

While the changes generated new support from lawmakers in the conservative House Freedom Caucus, they are driving away others in more centrist districts.

"The proposed changes to this bill would leave too many of my constituents with preexisting conditions paying more for health insurance coverage, and too many of them will even be left without any coverage at all," said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Washington bureau reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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