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Unfinished Appropriations Work Piled High as Yuletide Awaits

Avoiding partial government shutdown tops the list

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., says he’s ready to take up a stopgap measure tiding lawmakers over until after Christmas, if that’s what it takes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., says he’s ready to take up a stopgap measure tiding lawmakers over until after Christmas, if that’s what it takes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Welcome to “hell week” on Capitol Hill.

From wrapping up seven of 12 outstanding appropriations bills to enacting a landmark overhaul of criminal sentencing laws, the last week before Christmas is shaping up to be a frantic one — made more difficult by likely absences of lame-duck lawmakers not coming back next year.

First order of business: avoiding another partial government shutdown over the lingering border wall funding dispute between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders.

Leading options circulating late last week, according to Hill aides and others familiar with the discussions, were short-term extensions varying in length from two to six weeks. But lawmakers come back to Washington with no solidified plan to keep the nine Cabinet departments and dozens of smaller agencies still without full-year appropriations from closing up after midnight Friday, when the current stopgap law expires.

Some of the biggest agencies, including the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, already have their funding, so only 25 percent of the remaining discretionary spending for fiscal 2019 would be affected by a shutdown.

But the remaining seven bills account for over 40 percent of the federal civilian workforce, and aides to Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy estimate that more than 800,000 employees will be either furloughed or forced to work without pay during a shutdown.

[Podcast: Hell Week Amid Shutdown Fears]

Top lawmakers of both parties last week were openly saying they think a shutdown is possible, if not likely.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Democrats in her chamber stand ready to pass a continuing resolution to reopen government as the first order of business in the 116th Congress. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said he’s ready to take up a stopgap measure tiding lawmakers over until after Christmas, if that’s what it takes, though that would require an unwelcome session between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

With neither of those options appealing, the best hope remains that congressional leaders can hammer out some sort of deal with Trump on border wall funding, and pass as many of the seven spending bills as they can. But with time so short, a major spending deal before the current stopgap runs out Dec. 21 is starting to look far-fetched.

More than a math problem

Trump wants $5 billion for southern border wall construction; Democratic leaders are willing to give him only $1.375 billion, the same amount appropriated in fiscal 2018. That’s less than the $1.6 billion that Senate Democratic leaders previously endorsed and included in a bipartisan fiscal 2019 Homeland Security spending bill, which the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, 26-5 — suggesting that Democrats believe they have the upper hand.

Typically, appropriators could quickly resolve such a dispute, usually by splitting the difference. But both sides are dug in because the wall fight’s political symbolism transcends numbers on a spreadsheet.

Earlier quid pro quos on immigration policy, such as giving Trump a multiyear wall appropriation in exchange for conferring legal status on some 700,000 “Dreamers,” or young adults brought to the U.S. illegally as children, are seemingly off the table. So where a wall deal could now emerge is anyone’s guess.

Complicating everything is a truncated schedule in the House, with lawmakers out until Wednesday, at least for the moment. That raises the procedural possibility that an exasperated Senate might “jam” the House with whatever it can pass — likely something closer to the Democrats’ preferred position, given that chamber’s 60-vote hurdle.

It’s also quite possible that lawmakers could do what they do best when facing a holiday deadline: punt. Shelby said last week that options on the table included passing a CR that would run through January, February or even May for the remaining spending bills.

“You know, we’ve done that before,” Shelby said. “And others say September.”

A full-year stopgap is in fact what Democratic leaders are pushing, and they say even a short-term bill running into January would likely just get extended to Sept. 30 anyway.

Criminal justice, conservation and more

The delays in finishing appropriations could give other lawmakers time to hone their final efforts at passing long-sought initiatives before they go up in smoke at the end of the 115th Congress and have to start over. Here’s a rundown of other big-ticket items still with a chance to pass in the session’s waning days:

Criminal justice overhaul: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has lined up votes to shoehorn in a compromise criminal justice overhaul bill during a crowded December, and a few outspoken Republican opponents will cause the Senate to spend the first few days of the week on it. The bipartisan bill aims to lower the number of federal inmates through changes in some sentencing laws and through more help for people after they leave prison.

The first major criminal justice overhaul in a generation came together with bipartisan support from a supermajority of senators, Trump, House leadership and an array of interest groups across the ideological spectrum. The House is expected to clear the measure without changes after Senate action.

Tax “extenders”: A last-minute House GOP tax bill is having trouble garnering enough support in the GOP caucus to bring it to a floor vote. The measure, however, contains bipartisan elements that could be considered for inclusion in a year-end omnibus package.

Chief among the portions of the tax bill that might go into an omnibus are a package of tax break extensions, temporary tax relief for disaster victims and delays of taxes related to the 2010 health care law. The extenders include a seven-year extension and phaseout of the $1 biodiesel tax credit favored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the likely incoming Finance Committee chairman, among the roughly two dozen popular provisions.

Welfare: Competing proposals to extend the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program past its Dec. 21 expiration will also vie for inclusion in an omnibus. The smart money would be on the bipartisan three-year extension authored by Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, and Ron Wyden of Oregon. A more conservative five-year extension from Sen. Steve Daines of Montana or a similar version approved by the House Ways and Means Committee are the less likely route.

The most likely outcome, though, would be another short-term extension for the $17-billion-a-year federal program. It has been reauthorized only once since its 1996 creation, and has been extended more than two dozen times since 2010.

Land and Water Conservation Fund: While the fund has bipartisan support, lawmakers did not stave off a Sept. 30 expiration of its authorization. The program uses fees charged on profits from oil and gas operations on public lands to buy and preserve public lands for recreation.

Aiming to reauthorize the program before the year ends, lawmakers from both parties have been locked in negotiations for weeks. But several conflicts, including whether to move stand-alone legislation or wrap it into a broader package, appear to have delayed a deal negotiators had hoped to clinch by Dec. 7.

Violence Against Women Act: Congress has passed short-term extensions of the landmark domestic violence law as part of the two stopgap funding laws this year. The law was set to expire Sept. 30, but authorizations were kept in place through Dec. 21.

House Republicans plan to provide another short-term extension of VAWA in the year-end spending package, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said last week. Pelosi said House Democrats plan to introduce a full overhaul and reauthorization of VAWA next year.

Israel: An effort to limit the growing domestic “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, which seeks to pressure the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians, is hoping the House and Senate are able to resolve differences between competing bills to get a final measure inserted into an omnibus spending package.

Both bills would impose penalties on Americans who take part in boycotts of Israel and its settlements if they are organized by international governmental bodies. Though both measures have been amended in response to criticisms that they unconstitutionally violate Americans’ freedom of speech, civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union remain strongly opposed.

“Blue Water” veterans: The Senate is still struggling to clear a House-passed, bipartisan measure to extend benefits related to Agent Orange exposure to Vietnam veterans who served offshore.

The so-called Blue Water bill is currently held up under objections from GOP senators Mike Lee of Utah and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, who harbor concerns about the costs of the bill’s implementation and the science behind determining whether veterans who served on ships were exposed to the herbicide. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia is still negotiating to bring the bill up for a quick vote. But while Enzi is open to negotiations, Lee seems unwilling to budge.

Medicare “doughnut hole”: The pharmaceutical industry has urged Congress to roll back a change made earlier this year to the so-called Medicare “doughnut hole” coverage gap, although it’s not clear whether there is enough support on Capitol Hill to do so.

The industry is pushing Congress to scale back a change to Medicare’s prescription drug benefit that would require drugmakers to pay 70 percent of the cost of drugs that fall in the doughnut hole, with Medicare paying the rest, up from 50 percent.

Flood insurance: Lawmakers have until Friday to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, and House Democratic leadership have discussed extending the program through the end of fiscal 2019 as part of an omnibus package. Congress passed several short-term NFIP extensions over the past year after the Senate declined to take up a House-passed five-year reauthorization bill.

Congress is likely to hold off on any major changes to the program until next year, when the Senate might have an easier time reaching agreement on a long-term reauthorization with the incoming House Democratic majority.

Lauren Clason, Paul M. Krawzak, Mary Ellen McIntire, Elvina Nawaguna, Rachel Oswald, Todd Ruger, Jennifer Shutt, Doug Sword, Greg Tourial and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

Watch: Pelosi on Trump Shutdown, Border Wall, Mexico and Press Coverage

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