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Negotiations on Year-End Legislation ‘Stuck’

McCarthy said weekend work was a possibility. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
McCarthy said weekend work was a possibility. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As members hurried from the Capitol Monday evening for White House Christmas festivities, hopes for a holiday adjournment this week were growing more dim.  

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said repeatedly that discussions on year-end government funding legislation were “stuck” because of issues with a separate package of extensions of expired tax breaks that advocates were hoping would hitch a ride on the omnibus spending measure. “We were making great progress over the weekend. We were making progress on coming to closure on our financial agreements. We were coming to closure on some of the poison pill riders,” Mikulski said.  

Mikulski referred questions about the extenders dispute to members of the House leadership and members of the tax-writing committees.

Her counterpart on Senate Appropriations, Chairman Thad Cochran, said in response to a question about the discussions, “Well, we hope we’re making progress. Trying to make progress.”

But, the Mississippi Republican added, “I’m not the only person involved in making this decision.”  

When pressed about how much time would be needed to prepare a short-term continuing resolution to get Congress a few days past its Friday deadline, Cochran said, “I don’t know. The majority leader would need to decide.”  

Across the Rotunda, the situation was not much clearer.  

“There is very little support for the Tax Extenders bill as written. There is also strong opposition to any thought of combining these bills,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a Monday “Dear Colleague” letter.  

Earlier in the afternoon, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he saw little evidence of progress on negotiations and was mulling keeping the House in session over the weekend to resolve differences.  

McCarthy singled out the tax issue as a priority.  

“I’d hate to see extenders not get done,” he said. “I think it’s too important.”  

The California Republican also speculated that Democratic leaders had not empowered their appropriators to negotiate one-on-one with their GOP counterparts. “There have been a number of ideas that have not been finalized. To my understanding, some may be coming from maybe the Democratic side in the House on negotiating the final portions,” McCarthy said. “The one part I was hearing from a lot of Democratic members were they were not given the authority to negotiate a lot of the different points so that had slowed the process down.”  

“The idea of a lack of empowerment is absurd,” Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York, said in email. “If the majority wants Democratic votes on an omnibus, leadership needs to put forward something that Democrats can support.”  

Pelosi’s letter made clear her team still has issues with several other policy riders.  

Before Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama threatened to veto a House-passed bill to enhance certification requirements for refugees seeking to enter the United States from Syria or Iraq.  

Although a few dozen Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill, the administration and House Democratic leaders argued it would add unnecessary red tape to an already burdensome process.  

Republicans see the omnibus as a way to make headway on the refugee issue in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said last week the president’s veto threat indicates Democrats would view it as a poison pill rider should Republicans try to add it to the omnibus.  

There are other riders that could be points on contention blocking an agreement.  

Since even before he was majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said repeatedly the administration’s energy and environment policies would be a top target. Republican negotiators have pressed against several Environmental Protection Agency plans, including the proposals to target power plant emissions.  

Republicans have also consistently targeted the so-called Waters of the United States policy regarding the regulation of inland waterways.  

Another piece of the spending negotiations concerns the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law.  

The GOP wants to block a fiduciary rule that would provide enhanced standards for financial advisers who offer retirement advice. Democrats say the rule offers protections for investors by requiring the advisers to disclose conflicts of interest, but Republicans argue the rules will increase regulatory costs that firms will pass onto their clients.  

Fights over administration policy on spending bills are not new. Republicans have backed off plans to defund Democratic priorities like the Affordable Care Act, and Planned Parenthood, choosing instead to use the reconciliation budget process to target those programs. The Senate passed its reconciliation measure last week doing so, and the House is expected to take the Senate measure up this week.  

But conservatives are still hoping for some language addressing Planned Parenthood, such as a provision allowing states to redirect federal funding to community health clinics that do not provide abortions. That would make for another rider to haggle over between the two sides.  

In the meantime, though, until leadership resolves some of the top-line issues, a finite list of riders to wade through is not forthcoming.  

Tamar Hallerman and Emma Dumain contributed to this report .

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