Budget talks hit snag over environmental issues, refugees

AP News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2015 6:37 PM
Budget talks hit snag over environmental issues, refugees

WASHINGTON (AP) — Talks on a massive, government-wide spending bill hit a snag Wednesday as Republicans pressed demands to block new power plant rules, weaken financial services regulations and make it more difficult for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to enter the U.S.

Democrats, whose votes will be needed to carry the $1.1 trillion measure through the House, flatly rejected the initial offer from top Republicans. With little more than a week to pass a measure to avert a government shutdown, it's likely that a short-term funding bill will be needed to keep the government open past the Dec. 11 deadline.

Republican aides characterized Tuesday night's offer from House Speaker Paul Ryan and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell as an opening move, but the White House weighed in sharply, saying it threatened a government shutdown.

Many lower-tier items in the massive measure have been worked out, leaving numerous policy provisions, known as "riders" as the main unresolved items.

"The effort they're engaged in now is to lard the bill up with ideological riders," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

The initial GOP offer included provisions to block new Obama administration rules on power plant emissions, weaken the 2010 overhaul of financial regulations known as the Dodd-Frank law, and a contentious House-passed bill requiring greater scrutiny on Syrians seeking refuge in the U.S.

"They sent us an offer that was anti-worker, anti-labor, anti-education, anti-environment ... anti-refugee," said top House Appropriations Committee Democrat Nita Lowey of New York. Many provisions in the 12 spending bills drafted by House and Senate Republicans have been slapped with White House veto threats.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans would release the proposal, but a memorandum from House Democratic staff characterized it in broad strokes, citing "poison pill" riders on the environment, labor regulations, financial regulation and refugees. The proposal would not unravel President Barack Obama's signature health care law, attempt to take away federal funding from Planned Parenthood or undo executive action on immigration.

Democrats said they would prepare a counter-offer.

The ill-will followed a story in Politico that quoted anonymous Republicans characterizing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as an obstacle to the talks and blaming her for slow progress on dozens of unresolved issues.

"We haven't been talking to the press, we've been respectful, we've been open, understanding that we have to compromise and the rest — and then all of a sudden, they announce, 'We're telling the Democrats time is running out,'" Pelosi told her colleagues Wednesday morning. "Everything that we thought would have movement or that was still an open question, they just negated."

Despite Wednesday's blow-up, both sides remain committed to working out an agreement. The measure follows an October pact that awarded both the Pentagon and domestic Cabinet agencies about $33 billion above tight budget "caps" that many Republicans and virtually every Democrat opposed.

"We're at the first stage of this leadership negotiation," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who's been actively involved from her post as top Democrat of the Appropriations Committee. "We're far apart on these policy riders and then on some money issues. But the policy riders are our biggest challenge."

"We patiently await their offer," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

The Syrian refugee issue could become particularly contentious. House conservatives said Wednesday they would demand language in the spending bill at least as strong as legislation already passed by the House, with support from 47 Democrats, to greatly increase hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. "We have a constitutional duty to protect the American public," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas.

Yet Obama threatened to veto that bill, and in the Senate more limited changes are being considered, leaving any resolution uncertain.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.