2-8-18 7:52 PM EST | Email Article
By Natalie Andrews and Kristina Peterson 

WASHINGTON -- Congress appeared poised Thursday to clear a two-year budget deal that would end a long-running battle over federal spending and thwart another that had yet to ratchet up, by suspending the government's borrowing limit through March 1, 2019.

The deal was expected to clear both chambers narrowly around the midnight deadline, when the government's current funding expires, though voting in the Senate was delayed as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) spoke to demand changes to the bill and some House Democrats faced a split with leadership. The government said it was preparing for a shutdown as the clock ticked toward 12:01 a.m.

The package also includes a stopgap spending bill keeping the government running through March 23.

The pact sets overall spending levels, boosting funding by almost $300 billion over the remainder of this fiscal year and the next, for both domestic and defense programs. Lawmakers now must translate that into detailed spending legislation.

Still, its passage would effectively end one of the most high-stakes fights in Washington, which devolved last month into a three-day partial government shutdown. By ensuring stable government funding, the budget agreement would remove the threat of a shutdown from Democrats' arsenal, disappointing those who had wanted the minority party to wield it in the coming fight over immigration.

The Senate is expected to begin considering immigration legislation next week, as lawmakers wrestle with the fate of young immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. President Donald Trump in September ended a program shielding them from deportation, but gave Congress until March 5 to hammer out a replacement.

The expected bipartisan support for the budget deal is unlikely to carry into the immigration debate, where each party's base has staked out uncompromising ground. But on Thursday, three of the four top congressional leaders took note of a rare moment of bipartisanship.

This week's long-term budget deal "is a strong signal that we can break the gridlock that has overwhelmed this body and work together for the good of the country," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Republicans lauded the hundreds of billions more the Defense Department would receive under the spending agreement, though some acknowledged discomfort over its impact on the federal budget deficit.

"I can't just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits," said Sen. Paul, who withheld his consent to speed up time-consuming Senate procedures Thursday evening and pushed the vote closer to the midnight deadline.

The budget deal would deliver a significant blow to lawmakers' efforts to rein in federal spending since a landmark 2011 budget law. The latest agreement would become the third consecutive two-year deal aimed at preventing spending cuts from kicking in.

"It's discouraging," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), observing a willingness among Republicans to boost military spending without finding offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget. "The hard work obviously is cutting something."

The budget deal had opened a wider rift among House Democrats, many of whom had hoped to use their leverage on spending bills to secure legal protections for Dreamers.

"It does diminish our leverage, absolutely," Rep. Juan Vargas (D., Calif.) said of passing the budget deal, which he planned to oppose. "I don't see how it doesn't."

Activists have pushed Democratic leaders to use their leverage over the spending bills to take a stand on immigration.

But Democrats who tried that approach last month said they had no desire to repeat the three-day government shutdown. Many said they planned to support a bill that included many Democratic priorities, including disaster relief aid and 10-year funding for children's health insurance. Some said the immigration debate shouldn't overshadow all their other priorities.

"It is among the very toughest," said Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D., Texas) of the spending vote. "You don't have a clear understanding how we'd be able to ensure that Dreamers can continue to be successful in this country and have a path toward citizenship. And on that line it isn't clear that voting 'no' gets you to that."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) spoke for eight hours on the House floor on Wednesday, advocating for the young immigrants and setting a record for the length of the speech. She received a standing ovation when she walked into a caucus dinner Wednesday night, but some Democratic lawmakers said Mrs. Pelosi's speech may have misleadingly broadcast that their sole ambition is to resolve the immigration debate.

"It may have once again reinforced with the American public that that is our singular priority, but I think that is not really the case," Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) said of Mrs. Pelosi's speech. Ms. Fudge said she planned to vote for the budget deal, which she said contained "almost everything that I wanted."

Democrats' votes will be needed in the House because many conservative Republicans are expected to vote against the package, which both significantly raises federal spending and suspends the debt limit through March 1, 2019. On Wednesday night the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three-dozen House conservatives, took an official position against the budget deal.

"We're spending more money than we ever spent in the Obama era, said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Democrats this week began more openly questioning the wisdom of their leaders' attempts to use their leverage on spending bills to try to secure legal protections for the Dreamers.

"We weren't going to get DACA through the budget process no matter what, so yeah we can scream and yell and Nancy can get on the floor for eight hours and I congratulate her for doing that," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D., Ky.), "but it still wasn't going to get us a resolution."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) promised an open debate over the fate of the young undocumented immigrants. Mrs. Pelosi said she wanted the same commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has said he would only bring a bill to the House floor that had President Donald Trump's support. But on Thursday, Mr. Ryan said he was confident they could find a bipartisan bill that the president would back.

"I know that there is a real commitment to solving the DACA challenge in both political parties -- that's a commitment I share," Mr. Ryan told reporters, using unusually conciliatory language. "Please know we are committed to getting this done."

The funding deal congressional leaders agreed to on Wednesday would boost discretionary spending levels in 2018 and 2019 by around $300 billion above caps set in law earlier this decade, plus another $89 billion in relief for regions rebuilding after last year's natural disasters.

The levels represent a substantial increase over what President Barack Obama submitted in his final budget request to Congress. The current proposal would spend around 13% more for the current budget year that ends on Sept. 30 than Mr. Obama had proposed spending in the same year, and around 14% more for the budget year after that.

The budget deal would be the first agreement to lift federal spending above not one, but two sets of spending curbs agreed to in 2011, as part of a compromise aimed at ending a bruising battle over the debt ceiling.

--Nick Timiraos contributed to this article.

Write to Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com and Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 08, 2018 19:52 ET (00:52 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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