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Republicans aim high with border security spending package

February 1, 2019

Republicans working on a new border security deal say they want to “go big” and aim for a universal deal that would solve not only the immediate shutdown threat but also a looming debt-limit fight and spending caps that are poised to bite in October.

The White House, meanwhile, is still pushing for an agreement that could combine border security with a major immigration deal including legal status for millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

So far, they’re finding few takers among Democrats, who remain focused on border security and chiefly on denying Mr. Trump his wall money.

Republicans say expanding the scope of the negotiations could help lawmakers break the logjam, giving more people a reason to vote for an eventual deal.

“I think it might make it easier,” said Rep. Charles Fleischmann, Tennessee Republican. “If we went big and went with the debt ceiling and if we dealt with [spending caps], that might be something more laudable.”

Mr. Fleischmann is one of the 17 negotiators, Republicans and Democrats from the House and the Senate, who are trying to strike a deal on the 2019 Homeland Security spending bill. An impasse spurred the most recent government shutdown, and without a deal by Feb. 15, another shutdown could ensue.

Once the homeland bill is done, lawmakers expect six other spending bills that remain in the pipeline will quickly be finalized.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said the starting point for negotiations should be a regular appropriations bill, but broadening the scope could help lawmakers in their effort.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Mr. Shelby, Alabama Republican. “Sometimes there are intervening forces.”

Other lawmakers say there are deadlines coming up a debt-limit suspension ends in early March, and the government will face deep spending cuts in October thanks to Obama-era spending caps that could be wrapped into the current negotiations.

“Let’s at least consider the things we can do in this conference besides just get the rest of the government funded that helps us get our job done next year,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

But where Republicans say a broader bill could build support, Democrats say the more that’s included, the more there is for lawmakers to dislike.

“The problem is, if we start losing votes, we don’t want to go there,” said Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat. “We want to make it simple. I think we need to keep it simple and clean.”

Still, both parties agree that Congress ultimately will have to pass legislation to increase the debt limit, and that no one on Capitol Hill has an interest in adhering to the new, lower spending limits that were the product of a debt-ceiling deal in 2011.

“I think on both sides we have an understanding now, since we’ve been through it three times, of the need for bipartisan budget agreements to lift the caps,” said Rep. David Price, North Carolina Democrat. “We need to do that.”

Congress routinely has voted to increase the discretionary spending caps imposed by the 2011 law, including in a deal last year that boosted them by about $300 billion in 2018 and 2019.

The deals typically bring the two parties together, with Republicans touting increases to defense spending and Democrats backing boosts for domestic social programs.

If Congress doesn’t act, lawmakers will have to cut more than $100 billion from 2019 spending levels next year to abide by the caps or trigger painful across-the-board “sequester” cuts.

“Congress will absolutely renew the higher spending levels for the next two years,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “There is no interest in Congress of actually ratcheting the caps down by $126 billion in 2020.”

For its part, the White House has been floating the idea of a broad immigration deal.

Mr. Trump proposed $5.7 billion in wall money, plus a three-year protection written into the law for 700,000 “Dreamers” who are covered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and another 300,000 immigrants in the country on humanitarian Temporary Protected Status.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said Democrats won’t agree to that. She said temporary relief for migrants in exchange for money to build a “permanent” wall for Mr. Trump is a “non-starter.”

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