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The Road to a Spending Showdown Is Paved With Cigars, Guns and Horses

Here’s a rundown of some of the funding disputes bubbling under the radar

it’s not just the headline-grabbing clashes over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall that could sabotage a deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
it’s not just the headline-grabbing clashes over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall that could sabotage a deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week without an agreement on a year-end spending package that would wrap up seven unfinished bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Reaching a deal would require a lot of work in a very short period of time. Both chambers are scheduled to be in session for only eight legislative days before a stopgap funding law runs dry on Dec. 7. If no new package is passed by then, Congress would need another continuing resolution to avoid a partial government shutdown.

The outstanding bills for fiscal 2019 encompass about 25 percent of the year’s $1.244 trillion in discretionary spending subject to budget limits. But the two parties are as divided as ever over how to parcel out the remaining $313 billion available under the budget caps and handle a collection of policy riders written chiefly by majority House Republicans who will be out of power come January.

And it’s not just the headline-grabbing clashes over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and protecting Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation that could sabotage a deal. Dozens of small-ball skirmishes running the gamut from regulation of cigars to funding for United Nations climate change programs must get resolved too.

Here’s a rundown of some of the funding disputes bubbling under the radar:


Food for Peace: The House version would cut grants for food shipments to foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations to help combat famine and malnutrition by $216 million, or 12.6 percent, from the prior fiscal year. The Senate bill would provide flat funding for the program, which the White House wants to eliminate altogether.

Horse slaughter: House Republicans want to remove a rider that would prohibit the inspection of horses intended for human consumption. Some lawmakers from both parties and animal rights groups support the ban, but critics say it deprives federal and state agencies of a useful tool in managing wild horse populations. More than 100,000 horses annually are exported to Canada and Mexico, mainly for slaughter, and the meat is sold in foreign markets with a taste for it, such as the European Union, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Premium cigars: Reps. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a Georgia Democrat, have teamed up on their perennial amendment to weaken some of the FDA’s regulatory authority over tobacco products, with this year’s effort smaller in scope and focused mainly on carving out “traditional large and premium cigars.”


Census citizenship question: Democrats want to block the Census Bureau from adding a question on citizenship status to the 2020 Census. They argue the question, last included nationwide in 1950, would lead to undercounting as millions of foreign-born residents shy away from responding to the survey for fear of deportation.

Guns: Democrats object to a rider in the House version that they say would block enforcement of a requirement that gun sellers in four southwestern border states report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when an individual buys two or more specified semiautomatic rifles known to be favored by Mexican drug cartels within a five-day period. Democrats also want to add a provision allowing the attorney general to block gun purchases by individuals on a terror watch list.

Financial Services

Election security: Before the midterms, Democrats wanted an extra $380 million neither chamber’s Republicans would accept for Election Assistance Commission grants aimed at preventing computer hacking.

Federal Buildings Fund: The House bill would provide about $1 billion less than the Senate version for the General Services Administration’s main management fund for federal agency properties the government owns and leases. Much of the gap between the chambers stems from the Senate’s inclusion of $767.9 million to purchase the Transportation Department’s headquarters in Washington outright, rather than continuing to make lease payments to the building’s owner, developer JBG Smith.

Savings Fund: House Republicans set aside $585 million to create a “Fund for America’s Kids and Grandkids” that could be spent on the next generation only if federal deficits are eliminated. Democrats denounced the move as a gimmick because the Congressional Budget Office projects running deficits for decades.

Abortion: House Republicans inserted provisions barring the main health insurance plan for federal workers from paying for abortions, as well as limiting Medicaid’s ability to cover the cost of abortions within the District of Columbia. Democrats want them out of a final bill.

“Dreamers”: House Democrats want language ensuring that beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Trump administration wants to end, can get federal government jobs.

Pay raises: House Democrats want to cap pay raises for the vice president and other “high-ranking political appointees.”

Homeland Security

Border funding restrictions: Besides the funding dispute, Democrats want to restrict how money could be spent on any physical border barriers as they did in previous years, limiting it to “previously deployed and operationally effective designs,” not Trump’s vision of a concrete wall.

The border security debate is likely to be accompanied by images that could ramp up the tone of the debate, considering U.S. law enforcement’s use of tear gas on migrants at the Southern border near Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego. 

“These families have traveled thousands of miles. They’re exhausted, hungry and not a threat to national security. They’re simply seeking the opportunity to request asylum from the U.S. government and make a better life away from violence and poverty,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a statement, adding, “It’s clear the president is doing all he can to end our asylum system, which will do nothing to help our national security and is little more than a political tactic that will end up harming California and the nation.”

Immigrant detainees: Democrats oppose funding in the House bill to expand the average daily population in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers by 3,480 to 44,000, and to hire an additional 304 ICE Enforcement and Removal officers. They also want prohibitions on detention of pregnant woman and of children for more than 20 days, and to bar removal of individuals residing in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, which the administration has proposed to revoke.

Polar icebreaker: The U.S. Coast Guard wants to build the first new heavy polar icebreaker in more than 40 years as the military seeks to compete with Russia for supremacy in the Arctic Circle. The Senate backed the White House’s initial $750 million request for the new icebreaker in its bill, but the House dropped the funds as GOP lawmakers in that chamber struggled to meet the president’s $5 billion border barrier request.


Regulatory programs: Democrats denounced about $100 million in cuts to EPA regulatory programs in the House bill. House Republicans cheered the cuts, which they said would rein in unnecessary regulations, including the Obama administration’s “Waters of the United States” rule expanding federal jurisdiction of waterways.

Endangered species: Democrats objected to provisions in the House bill blocking funding to preserve species including the marbled murrelet, grizzly bears and the sage grouse.

State-Foreign Operations

Green climate fund: The Obama administration pledged $3 billion to the United Nations Green Climate Fund, designed to help developing countries combat climate change. But after $1 billion in payments were made, Trump announced he would halt payments once he took office. Democrats want to lift a prohibition on additional payments.


Appointees: The House bill removes a cap on political and presidential appointees at the Department of Transportation, which has been in place since fiscal year 1986. The Senate continues the provision, which would allow no more than 110 such individuals.

Transportation riders: There are perennial disputes on transportation policy, including restricting funding for high-speed rail in California in the House version and an exemption clause for certain rest requirements for truck and bus drivers, among other provisions.

Watch: Rashida Tlaib Can’t Stand Bullies and Is Keenly Aware Her District Is Third-Poorest in Nation

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