Tensions Rise as Omnibus Bill Negotiations Stall
Congress will most certainly miss its Friday deadline to wrap up an omnibus spending package to fund the government, and the stalled talks on that measure led to a testy environment on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
While Republican leaders in both chambers said members should prepare for weekend work to finish the year-end legislation, the political schedule was also taking a hit. Organizers for a big-ticket fundraiser for the Republican National Committee called off their Wednesday event because Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., had to pull out of being its headliner. Ryan had committed to the RNC Presidential Trust Dinner in New York City Wednesday, a major conduit for cash headed to the eventual 2016 presidential nominee.
But because of the uncertainty of the House schedule, Ryan had to cancel. Republican sources said the unresolved nature of the year-end spending bill and a measure to extend lapsed tax breaks prevented the speaker from being the guest of honor.
Meanwhile, the chambers remained deadlocked over several policy provisions to the omnibus.
The top Senate Democratic appropriator, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, said “40 or 42 poison pill riders” are giving senior negotiators headaches, including provisions targeting abortion, campaign finance restrictions and a National Labor Relations Board ruling.
Also causing trouble, according to the Maryland Democrat, is the package of tax extenders, which she said is currently “linked” to the catchall agreement.
“We were making very good progress on resolving the money issues,” she said Tuesday, but added that the riders put negotiations in a “frozen state” and mainly between congressional leadership and the White House.
“We have about 40 or 42 poison pill riders, but some are really big — Hobby Lobby, campaign finance reform — things that should have never even been on the appropriations,” Mikulski said. “So we’re kind of stuck at the riders stage.”
Her remarks came as House Republican leaders planned to advance a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government for a few days beyond Friday’s deadline.
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat warned Tuesday of dire consequences if Republicans force language on abortion into the omnibus and said he wouldn’t be surprised if the debate runs up through Christmas Eve.
“Just heard about it for the first time today, and if they try to do it, all hell will break loose,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said of the provision. “You can imagine. The phrase ‘Hobby Lobby’ perks up the ears of many members of the Senate.”
A Democratic aide said the Hobby Lobby reference, invoking a Supreme Court decision, was to a pair of provisions already contained in the House’s Labor-HHS-Education spending plan. Those involve a employers’ exercise of a conscience clause if they believe providing certain health care violates their religious beliefs and language on abortion non-discrimination.
The biggest campaign finance rider under discussion would relax limits on coordination between political parties and their candidates. Progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers, as well as conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, are fighting the language.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has been leading the effort against the rider, said if enacted the provision would allow big-money donors a new avenue — through the party committees — to give large sums to help their favored candidates.
Supporters of the rider, including its patron, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argue it would help party committees keep pace with super PACs and other outside groups.
Other major riders causing trouble including a House-passed measure that would require the FBI to sign off on all refugee resettlement applications from Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, which his administration has described as “untenable.”
Mikulski also indicated provisions weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law were gumming up the works.
Despite the latest consternation from across the aisle, McConnell was still looking forward to completing the omnibus spending measure and tax package.
“It’s our hope here as we go toward the end of the session to pass a collection of appropriation bills written by Republicans,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Earlier in the day, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said they would push Ryan for a six-week continuing resolution in order to avoid the kind of end-of-the-year Christmas tree bill that often passes with lawmakers eager to get home for the holidays.
“We’ve had conversations with Paul already about that,” said HFC Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “A lot of times when deadlines come around here, we don’t always like the decisions that get made.”
But senior appropriators, such as GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, wanted nothing of stopgap funding into January or beyond.
“CRs are bad government. Appropriations bills are good government because they set priorities and make decisions,” Alexander said. “Just automatically spending next year what we did last is lazy government.”
Durbin told reporters that when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said last week the omnibus deadline could get pushed back a week with a short CR, he had a bad feeling about the endgame.
“Let me just be honest having been around here for a little while. When Leader McCarthy in the House said, ‘Well, if we don’t make Dec. 11, we’ll make Dec. 18,’ and I thought ‘Oh my god, it’s Dec. 24.’ So, I hope I’m wrong,” Durbin said.
Still, the Christmas cheer wasn’t totally absent from the halls of Congress. Senators took part in their annual Secret Santa party Tuesday evening, organized by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
Exiting the Senate Secret Santa with a cheeseboard shaped like Texas and some Cabot cheese from Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said “I’m hoping people drink a little more eggnog,” to advance the discussions on tax extenders legislation.
“We’re waiting on the House,” Cornyn said. “I hear things are in a better place than they were.”
Tamar Hallerman, Kate Ackley, Melanie Zanona, Sarah Chacko and George Cahlink contributed to this report.
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