Congress, White House close in on spending bill, tax package

AP News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2015 11:41 PM
Congress, White House close in on spending bill, tax package

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional negotiators and the White House closed in on a deal late Monday on a $1.1 trillion government-wide spending bill to stave off a shutdown, and a tax package extending dozens of breaks.

In a Monday evening conference call among House Republicans, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said bargainers were close to agreements on the spending and tax measures that he expected to publicly release Tuesday, which would set up votes later in the week. He said the bills would contain victories for both parties but provided few details, according to an official who described the private conversation on condition of anonymity.

A GOP push to lift the four-decade-old ban on exporting crude oil emerged as a negotiating point in final talks. In return, Democrats sought various environmental concessions, including extending tax credits for solar and wind energy production for five years, and reviving an environmental conservation fund. Democrats also were trying to block GOP efforts to roll back Obama administration environmental regulations, with Democratic lawmakers who traveled to the Paris climate talks returning energized to fight.

"It's like they all went to an international pep rally and got all this emotional wind at their back," GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said in a phone interview.

Government funding runs out Wednesday at midnight, but Congress will need to pass another short-term extension of a day or two to complete work on the $1.14 trillion government-wide spending bill. Negotiations have dragged on as the legislation has become an increasingly complex grab bag for priorities and trade-offs large and small.

It's also intertwined with another massive bill extending dozens of tax credits benefiting interest groups across the political spectrum, sparking intense lobbying on numerous fronts.

Congressional passage would mean lawmakers would then head home for the holidays, having done their necessary work in typically messy and last-minute fashion.

"Many of us in the Senate and the House and our staffs worked through the weekend and have made a lot of progress," Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the floor as the Senate gaveled back into session at mid-afternoon Monday. "We're not there yet."

The ban on exporting crude oil was instituted during energy shortages of the 1970s but Republicans, and some Democrats, say it's long outlived any usefulness. They note a boom in domestic energy production. Environmental groups and most Democrats counter that the main beneficiaries would be big oil companies.

Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., whose state has experienced an oil boom, said they were hopeful the provision lifting the ban on crude would survive last-stage talks.

At the White House Monday press secretary Josh Earnest refused to weigh in on inclusion of the provision. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the measure as stand-alone legislation but seems likely to accept if it's made part of the must-pass spending bill.

"I would anticipate that there will be some elements of the budget bill that are not consistent with the kinds of policies that we have long supported here," Earnest said. "But that's the essence of compromise and the president's only going to support the budget agreement if he does believe that it is clearly in the best interests of the country."

At the same time the talks have demonstrated that it can be good to be in congressional leadership, as some key lawmakers championed their own parochial priorities.

Reid looked likely to win relief for Caesars Entertainment, one of his state's largest employers, in battles with some of its creditors as the company restructures its debt.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., meanwhile, was seeking to sharply boost government funding to help a huge new coal-fired power plant in Kemper County implement new "clean coal" technologies. Democratic aides said Cochran was seeking as much as $160 million for the project.

Lobbyists said it was becoming increasingly likely that the spending package would lack a provision pushed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., easing curbs against gun violence research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Democrats had been hoping this month's shooting massacre in San Bernardino, California, would boost support for the proposal, or at least increase the political cost for Republicans opposing it.

Various agreements also were emerging on the tax bill, according to lobbyists following the talks, including tentative agreement to postpone start of the so-called "Cadillac" tax on high-value health insurance plans under Obama's health law from 2018 to 2020. There may also be a two-year pause in the existing 2.3 percent medical device tax.

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.