US House approves temporary funding to avert federal shutdown

The US Congress on Thursday averted a government shutdown just one day before federal funding was due to expire.
House representatives, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (centre), discuss how to avert a government shutdown.
House representatives, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (centre), discuss how to avert a government shutdown.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – The House passed yet another short-term extension of federal funding to keep the government running for three more weeks, while putting off a raft of policy fights. The Bill still has to clear the Senate before the shutdown deadline at the end of the day on Friday (Dec 22).

The measure, which passed 231-188, would maintain current levels of spending through Jan. 19 and provide US$4.5 billion (S$6 billion) in emergency funding for missile defence work as well as other Pentagon expenses.

It also provides money for several health programmes and a funding bridge of US$2.85 billion for the Children’s Health Insurance Programme, or CHIP. A temporary extension of a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or Fisa, that allows collection of e-mails and other messages without a warrant also was included.

Among the most noteworthy provisions in the stopgap measure is a waiver of automatic cuts to Medicare and dozens of other federal programmes, which would kick in because of the deficit impact of the tax overhaul passed this week. Waiving the rule would clear the way for President Donald Trump to sign the tax legislation before the end of the year rather than waiting until January.

Separate legislation to send US$81 billion to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California, all of which were hit by natural disasters this year, passed immediately afterward 251-169. Both measures will be taken up by the Senate as soon as Thursday night.

“I think it’s an acceptable solution,” Representative Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican, said of the pared down stopgap measure. “It’s just frustrating that we’re doing it this way.”

House GOP leaders backed down from their initial plan to appease the defence hawks in their ranks by attaching full funds for the 2018 military budget and forcing the Senate to decide how to approach the Democrats whose help they would need to help pass it. There was simmering resentment – as Republicans cast their votes just before leaving town for the holiday – that their policy-making would once again be held hostage by the minority party in the Senate.

Republican unity still held strong enough in the House to approve the spending Bill without having to count on votes from Democrats – 14 of whom voted for the measure – but the euphoria of passing their sweeping rewrite of the federal tax code just a day earlier had already dissipated.

Wednesday’s late night negotiations on how to fund the most basic functions of government yielded a Bill that was exciting to no one, but ultimately acceptable enough to send over to be tested by the tricky math of the slim GOP majority in the Senate.

One potential hurdle in the Senate is the waiver of the spending cut trigger – known as Paygo, for pay-as-you-go. Some Democrats previously said they opposed the waiver, which could create a hurdle in the Senate where their help is needed to reach 60 votes.

Senator Rand Paul, a frequent agitator for slashing government spending, said on Twitter on Thursday he would “force a Senate vote to keep the caps in place” if the House sends over a measure that includes the waiver.

Paul, a Kentucky Republican, also said he opposes the permanent re-authorisation of the Fisa section that authorises communications monitoring in counter-terrorism investigations, which can also include American citizens. Because this section is so controversial, including among some Democrats, the spending Bill passed by the House extends that authority just to Jan 19, rather than the full renewal sought by intelligence agencies.

Longer-term extension of the surveillance section is now added to the list of policy battles that this spending Bill simply puts off until next year.

Lawmakers from both parties also have raised issues with disaster aid legislation. Some Republicans opposed the measure because the amount was almost double what the White House requested, and it wasn’t offset with cuts to other federal expenses. Several Democrats decried the package as insufficient, particularly in its assistance to Puerto Rico.

As a sign of just how deep partisan divisions run, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t even agree on how to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Programme, which provides assistance to low-income families. This programme has been running on emergency funding for months, and in this bill receives only enough to get it through March.

The House passed a version of CHIP funding earlier this year, but Democrats opposed it because its costs were offset by cuts to other government health programmes.

The Veterans Choice Act, to give veterans more flexibility in their health care options, also receives US$2.1 billion under the spending Bill.

And the defence spending that some conservatives have for weeks said was their number- one priority will continue for just three more weeks, along with some extra funds that the military requested for things like ballistic missile defence and repairs to naval ships.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, recognising the political risks of removing the full defence appropriations Bill because of Senate concerns, assured his members on Wednesday night that Defence Secretary James Mattis had signed off on this strategy, according to a person who was in the closed door meeting.

Republicans still have to negotiate with Democrats on the ultimate levels for defence and non-defence spending for fiscal year 2018, because the Budget Control Act of 2011 caps those costs. Those levels must be worked out before congressional appropriators can write the package of spending Bills that will last until the end of fiscal year 2018. Ideally, this legislation would be ready in time for the new Jan 19 shutdown deadline.

However, the acrimony left over from Ryan switching strategies in the hours between the tax vote and the spending vote could limit his wiggle room on the tough negotiations that await when Congress returns in January.

Democrats stepped down from their demands for immigration protections this year, but the status of undocumented people brought to the US as children must be resolved before March. Some Republicans like Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake say this immigration fix is a priority for them as well.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine also relented on her demand for legislation this year that would stabilise health insurance markets, but these Bills – which are extremely unpalatable to House Republicans – are certain to resurface next year.

Although the Republicans who control Congress are on their way to avert a government shutdown on the heels of their tax victory, the tough decisions they didn’t confront this week sets them up for a difficult start to 2018.