WASHINGTON (AP) — A top House lawmaker announced Tuesday that Congress will pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government running through Dec. 20, forestalling a government shutdown as the House turns its focus to impeachment hearings.
Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., made the announcement after meeting with Senate counterpart Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in hopes of kick-starting long-delayed efforts to find agreement on $1.4 trillion of agency spending bills.
A fight over President Donald Trump's demands for up to $8 billion in new funding for his U.S.-Mexico border fence is largely responsible for an impasse on the huge spending package, which would implement details of this summer's hard-won budget accord.
The politically explosive impeachment hearing and the possibility of impeachment and a trial are not making the jobs of dealmakers like Lowey any easier. It's another layer of complications for senior lawmakers pressing not just for an agreement on agency budgets, it's also complicating action on a long-sought rewrite of North American trade rules.
The coming weeks could still be the last, best opportunity for lawmakers to wrap up their work on the budget and the trade deal, though stakeholders say the timetable could easily slip amid foot-dragging and partisan flare-ups.
As the House returns from a short break, the sole piece of must-do business before Thanksgiving is to pass a government-wide stopgap spending bill to avert the second government shutdown in a year.
The top leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees met Tuesday afternoon to seek progress toward a year-end deal on a massive appropriations package. Greeting reporters after a meeting with Shelby, Lowey sought to dispel worries of a shutdown when current funding expires a week from Thursday.
Shelby and Lowey promised a renewed push toward completing their unfinished work in coming weeks but offered no specifics.
"We had a very productive conversation," Lowey said. "It's our responsibility as the chairs of the committees to get our work done and we intend to get our work done."
The recurring fight over Trump's U.S.-Mexico border fence and immigrant detention practices is making it difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to make progress on a broader, full-year $1.4 trillion spending bill. That measure is needed to implement the terms of last summer's budget agreement, which distributed budget increases to the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
The other top issue is a legislative update to the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, sought by Trump and his Republican allies.
Pelosi is the key figure on trade, a tricky issue for Democrats, even if the politics of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement are nowhere nearly as divisive as NAFTA was 26 years ago.
Passage of NAFTA in 1993 badly split House Democrats, but Pelosi, who represents the Port of San Francisco, voted "aye," as did Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and powerful Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Neal is leading a working group on the measure and said the group is "on the 5-yard line" and the optimistic take is that he and Pelosi will bring USMCA in for a landing.
Some see the trade updates as an improvement over NAFTA, whose provisions enforcing Mexican labor and environmental rules are considered inadequate by many Democrats. The selling points for the new pact are that it updates NAFTA for the 21st century with hard-won provisions on digital trade, intellectual property, financial services and agricultural trade.
Still, any impeachment-related delays could tax patience and thrust politically freighted issues like the border wall and the updated trade pact into the heat of the presidential primary campaign.
On spending, Trump is a wild card as usual. He singlehandedly drove the 35-day partial shutdown that spanned the changeover between Republican and Democratic control of the House last winter. He has struggled to win much wall funding from Congress, where lawmakers in both parties have other designs for the money.
Trump has had more success in exploiting his powers to siphon money from Pentagon anti-drug and military construction accounts toward the wall, and construction is finally beginning on some new segments.
Trump could spin a successful wall narrative without much more in new appropriations. Simply funding the government on autopilot — though hardly anyone is advocating that — would give him perhaps $6 billion more this year.
A battle over Trump's powers to transfer military funding to wall building also has stalled an annual military policy bill that has become law for 58 years in a row.
Trump's anger at impeachment, his poisonous relationship with Pelosi, and his unpredictability and volatility are red flags. But the forces favoring an agreement are powerful, and McConnell — a top force behind the July budget pact — appears ready to get engaged more actively.
Capitol Hill veterans say hardliners on both sides — including House progressives and White House budget chief Russell Vought — are an impediment to the kind of split-the-differences agreement that the current balance of power can produce.
There is still time for action if the momentum stalls, even if the odds get more dicey in a presidential election year.
Limiting the duration of the stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution would mean another is needed before Congress adjourns for the year.
Any December stopgap measure could also provide a way to ship some unfinished business on taxes, health care and pensions to Trump's desk as part of a must-pass package. Top lawmakers hope that a full-year spending bill would serve the same purpose, but acknowledge there are considerable obstacles.
"I think it would be a terrible mistake if we were still in a continuing resolution after the first of the year for a whole host of reasons," said top Senate Appropriations Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, citing shifting signals from the White House as contributing to the delays. "It has been difficult with the White House because ... they have not always been consistent in what they want."
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