Congress faces tricky path to avoid government shutdown

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 19, 2017 10:01 AM

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress is in for a tough week as infighting over defense spending, healthcare and other contentious matters complicates the drive to pass a temporary spending bill by midnight on Friday to avert a partial government shutdown.

Veteran House of Representatives Republicans on Tuesday expressed optimism that a funding bill, coupled with a large new disaster aid package, ultimately would be worked out with the Senate.

But some are predicting that lawmakers will bump right up against Friday's midnight deadline.

The House could vote as soon as Wednesday on legislation that extends most funding for domestic programs through Jan. 19. Democrats are likely to mainly oppose the bill, arguing that their priorities were being ignored.

Conservative Republicans are insisting on higher military funding that would extend through the rest of the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30 as part of the House bill.

Democrats in the Senate are expected to block that formula if, as expected, it does not also have more money for non-defense programs.

The House measure would also include $81 billion in disaster funding to help Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and several U.S. states recover from hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

It is unclear whether the Senate might push for even more money in what would be the largest single disaster aid package ever produced by Congress.

Meanwhile, the House bill also would extend the Children's Health Insurance Program for five years.

If the Senate cuts the House's full-year funding for the Defense Department and merely extends its current levels for a few weeks, "That's a problem," said Republican Representative Jim Jordan, a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.

And if the Senate attaches a provision to continue federal subsidy payments for lower-income participants in the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, "That's going to be a problem," said Republican Representative John Carter, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

If House Democrats continue to withhold their support for the stop-gap spending bill and some Republicans peel off at any stage of a complicated process, House Speaker Paul Ryan could find himself struggling to pass a bill as the clock ticks toward midnight on Friday.

The last time government agencies had to shutdown because Washington could not pay its bills was in October, 2013. The 17-day impasse was sparked by a failed Republican demand to withhold funding unless Obamacare was repealed.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Susan Thomas)