WASHINGTON – A top House leader predicted Monday that Washington will avoid stumbling into a government shutdown next week over a tea party-backed drive to take away Planned Parenthood’s funding.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy added, however, that Congress may need additional time to work through a massive, $1.1 trillion catchall spending bill that tops the agenda as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill for a two- or three-week sprint to finish this year’s session.
McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters that “I do not hear people shutting the government down over it right now,” referring to demands by some conservatives to attach language to “defund” Planned Parenthood to the must-do spending bill. Such a move would guarantee gridlock.
Other business includes highway spending, taxes and a rewrite of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law.
The Senate’s top Democrat, exiting a meeting with the chamber’s GOP leader, offered a downcast assessment on prospects for a successful wrap-up of such a long roster of unfinished business.
“I’m not optimistic about anything. Seriously,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as he left Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office after a 20-minute meeting. “Going to wait and see what happens.”
There are less than two weeks until a deadline to pass the massive spending bill, which would fund every Cabinet agency and avoid a holiday season government shutdown. If the process doesn’t go smoothly, a last-minute temporary funding measure would be required to keep the government open when the current stopgap measure expires Dec. 11.
“I’m hopeful to get it all done and voted on by the 11th. If not, we’re here until the 18th and it won’t make any difference. We’ll get it done,” McCarthy said.
The so-called omnibus spending bill represents a challenge for new House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who took over the top House job after former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was forced out this fall over his penchant for looking to Democrats to help pass major legislation like year-end spending bills, among other reasons.
Ryan is sure to have to do the same this time around, despite pressure from outside groups like the Heritage Foundation to use the omnibus bill to force battles over federal money that reaches Planned Parenthood or heightened worries about Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks.
But the renegades who ran Boehner out aren’t in any mood to rough up Ryan just yet.
“I think it’s unfair to hold Paul Ryan accountable for this particular omnibus. The Dec. 11 crisis that our leadership created is one of the reasons we got rid of our leadership,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a tea party favourite. “It’s not of his making, and I personally would not write him off if something doesn’t happen on this omnibus, whether it’s Planned Parenthood … or something else.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is rising in the national presidential polls, is another matter. If past is prologue, he’s sure to use debate on the omnibus measure to burnish his reputation for attacking Capitol Hill GOP leaders and build opposition to the catchall spending compromise among Republican voters.
The massive spending bill is going to require Democratic support to pass, and GOP leaders have been frustrated that many Republicans routinely cast an easy vote to oppose such measures even when they really want them to advance. Less than one-third of House Republicans voted for the budget pact last month that set the parameters for the omnibus. The GOP’s top vote counter urged his whip team to turn around the phenomenon in which so many Republicans “vote no and hope yes.”
“The story of a bill that passed with 150 Republican votes is much more positive and assertive than the story of a bill that passes with 79 Republican votes,” said GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
House-Senate negotiations on a long-term measure funding highway and transit programs hoped the seal an agreement Monday. Talks were helped in large part by a new billion “offset” to help pay for the measure that involves a money shuffle from the Federal Reserve to the Treasury. Budget watchdogs say tapping into Federal Reserve surpluses is nothing more than a $59 billion gimmick and that the highway bill will actually add that figure to the government’s almost $19 trillion debt.
Another item on the must-do list involves extending dozens of tax breaks that expired at the start of the year, including breaks for struggling homeowners and people who live in states without a state income tax. At issue is an almost $100 package of more than 50 tax credits, exemptions and deductions through 2016. Support for these so-called tax extenders is bipartisan.
Among the biggest breaks for businesses are a tax credit for research and development; an exemption that allows financial companies such as banks and investment firms to shield foreign profits from being taxed by the U.S.; and several provisions that allow businesses to write off capital investments more quickly.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.