WASHINGTON – As a potentially catastrophic hurricane takes aim at the Carolinas, Congress is trying to head off a legislative disaster that could lead to a partial government shutdown weeks before the November elections.
The House planned to vote Thursday afternoon on a $147 billion package to fund the Energy Department, veterans’ programs and the legislative branch. The Senate passed that measure by a 92-5 vote Wednesday night.
Legislative leaders also announced an agreement on a bill to fund the rest of the government through Dec. 7. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said this short-term plan would be added to a separate spending bill that lawmakers are negotiating to cover the Defense Department and labor, health and education programs.
The stopgap bill would not address President Donald Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. GOP leaders have said they prefer to resolve the issue after the Nov. 6 elections.
It was not clear whether Trump would back this approach, but a Republican aide said the White House had not indicated any immediate opposition.
The bill awaiting House action was the first of three spending measures Congress hoped to approve this month to avoid a government shutdown when the new budget year begins Oct. 1.
Passage of this bill was so important to Republican leaders that they moved up the Senate vote, citing the threat of Hurricane Florence bearing down on the southeast coast.
The bill was a marked departure from recent years, when Congress routinely ignored agency-specific spending measures in favor of massive packages that funded the entire government at once. Trump has said he would not sign another such bill.
The three compromise spending plans, if passed by Congress and signed by Trump, would account for nearly 90 percent of annual federal spending, including the military and most civilian agencies.
“This package is not perfect, but that is the nature of compromise,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Leahy said he was concerned that the bill did not do enough to cover costs associated with a program that allows veterans to receive government-paid health care at private facilities.
Across the Capitol, Rep. Mark Walker said he and other conservatives were disappointed by the absence of policy add-ons that were in the House’s spending version before budget negotiations with the Senate.
“House Republican priorities were shut out across the board,” said Walker, R-N.C. He said conservatives expect the next round of budget talks to reflect their policy priorities. If not, it will be “difficult to support this funding,” Walker said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., disputed Walker’s characterization. “I think we got a great amount of victories for our members,” Ryan said.
Ryan said the bill includes money for veterans’ health care, military infrastructure, the electrical grid and nuclear weapons programs, and “represents a return to our most basic responsibility around here: passing appropriation bills.”
While generally upbeat about the progress on spending legislation, lawmakers from both parties are wary of a government shutdown, which Trump has threatened unless he gets billions of dollars for the wall.
“We still are in favor of the wall, we still want to get funding for the wall, but we think the best time to have that discussion is after the election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News last week.
McConnell, R-Ky., said there’s “zero” chance of a government shutdown.
Even so, Trump held out the possibility of a shutdown, citing the need to protect the nation’s border by following through on his signature campaign promise.
“If it happens, it happens,” Trump said last week. “If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”
With Republicans running the White House and both chambers of Congress, GOP leaders worry that voters would blame them for a shutdown, worsening the party’s prospects for retaining congressional control amid an anticipated “blue wave” for Democrats.
The White House in a statement said Trump looks forward to signing the spending package, adding that it “aligns with many of the administration’s priorities.”
The three-bill bundle includes:
— a $5.1 billion increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs, with $1.1 billion to pay for a law Trump signed to give veterans more freedom to see doctors outside the troubled VA system.
— $44.6 billion for energy and water programs, including programs to ensure nuclear stockpile readiness and spur innovation in energy research. The bill also funds flood-control projects and addresses regional ports and waterways.
The bill would require Senate candidates to file electronic campaign finance reports — nearly two decades after the requirement was put in place in the House. Senate candidates currently file paperwork with the secretary of the Senate, who then sends it along to the Federal Election Commission, causing weekslong delays in electronic filing.