Congress in final-stage talks on massive budget, tax bills

AP News
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Posted: Dec 10, 2015 6:54 PM
Congress in final-stage talks on massive budget, tax bills

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the holidays beckoning, negotiations intensified on Capitol Hill Thursday on a $1.1 trillion government-wide spending bill and a sprawling tax package touching all sectors of the economy.

Dozens of issues remained unresolved, mainly policy disputes over environmental and other issues that lawmakers of both parties were trying to attach to the must-pass spending legislation. Republicans sought to lift the oil export ban and roll back various Obama administration regulations; Democrats were maneuvering to protect President Barack Obama's environmental rules and enact permanent tax credits for wind, solar and other renewable energy.

"We're not going to get everything we want in negotiations. The Democrats aren't going to get everything they want in negotiations," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, told reporters. "But I believe that we will successfully complete these negotiations."

Under current law, government funding expires Friday at midnight, when the last short-term spending bill expires. The Senate agreed by voice vote and without debate Thursday to extend that deadline through Wednesday Dec. 16 to allow more time for talks. The House was expected to follow suit Friday, but Ryan allowed that even more time might be needed.

"I'm not going to put a deadline on it," he said. "I want to make sure that these negotiations are done well and done right, and not by some arbitrary deadline."

Earlier, Ryan assured lawmakers from Northeastern states that legislation extending health benefits and a compensation fund for 9/11 first responders would be made part of the spending bill. The spending legislation, which funds the government through the 2016 budget year, has become increasingly intertwined with the tax bill, which could deliver a political victory for both parties.

Uncertainty remained as to whether lawmakers would pull off a major tax bill with permanent extensions benefiting both sides, or simply opt for a two-year extension of existing tax breaks. With Congress' legislative year drawing to a close lawmakers were eager to finalize their work and head home for the holidays.

"I hope we can get a deal. There's certainly no guarantee that we'll get one," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said as he left the Capitol at the end of the day. He said sticking points related to labor and environmental issues, and a campaign finance provision pushed by his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to lift certain spending limits by party committees.

The two-year budget and debt deal passed earlier this year set the overall spending levels, but that left it up to the powerful Appropriations Committee to allocate the money ahead of the deadline for a partial government shutdown. The final areas of contention are the so-called "riders," the policy issues that lawmakers like to lard up must-do bills with.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said negotiators were down to about 40 riders after starting with 202. She contended Democrats proposed just a few, "and ours were very reasonable."

House Democrats, who've sought to draw attention to their push for gun control legislation in the wake of recent mass shootings, emphasized a new demand during the day as they announced their opposition to any bill that doesn't undo a longstanding provision that has been interpreted to block the Centers for Disease Control from conducting research on gun violence.

"My understanding from them is they need Democratic votes to pass it. So we will have to come to terms to do that," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "Don't expect us to vote for a bill that has a ban in it. Take the ban out."

Each side accused the other of issuing unreasonable demands blocking a final deal.

"The way that we will be able to finally reach an agreement here is when Republicans abandon their insistence on including these kinds of ideological riders in the budget process," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

"It would really be stupid for the Democrats to not take the full program that will continue" some of the tax breaks long-term, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters. "Because both sides are treated pretty fairly. .... Democrats are treated well, but we are too. It's a classic compromise that really deserves to be done."

The tax bill could cost at least $100 billion or more over 10 years by extending dozens of mostly obscure tax cuts. But the price tag could balloon to $700 billion or more as Democrats seek to make permanent some expiring tax cuts for families with lower incomes, younger children and college students; Republicans were seeking to extend expiring business tax breaks worth many billions.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.