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Congressional negotiators face hurdles in beating budget deadline

November 20, 2018

President Trump’s demand for $5 billion in funding for his border wall is only one of the issues congressional negotiators are working through as they try to beat a Dec. 7 budget deadline.

Fights around the edges of abortion policy, the 2020 census and Trump administration asylum policies have also popped up as hurdles that lawmakers will have to clear to avoid a partial government shutdown next month.

Complicating matters is Mr. Trump, an inconstant negotiating partner, who recently said it was a “good time to do a shutdown.” Unlike most policymakers in Washington who view a shutdown as a failure, the president sees it as a tool.

A shutdown would have less bite than usual this year because Congress has already approved five of the 12 annual spending bills, covering roughly 70 percent to 75 percent of discretionary spending for 2019.

That means any shutdown would only strike the remaining agencies and departments, which include Homeland Security, State, Justice and Interior.

That homeland security bill is the nexus for a number of the big fights remaining.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a key conservative ally of Mr. Trump, said there’s been talk of adding language that would impose new restrictions on foreigners seeking political asylum in the U.S. who travel through another country en route.

“So you’re coming from Central America escaping, wanting asylum why do you not seek asylum in Mexico, for example? So there may be some language as it relates to that,” he said.

The homeland security funding bill was already delayed this fall while lawmakers haggled over funding for the border wall. Mr. Trump says he wants $5 billion, up from a previous request of $1.6 billion, while Democratic leaders have urged him to butt out of the negotiations.

Another “serious” issue that has yet to be resolved in other parts of the spending process is language tied to family planning in the state/foreign operations spending bill, according to a Democratic aide.

Republicans have pushed to cap spending on certain family planning and reproductive health programs at fiscal 2008 levels and codify certain restrictions on money going to overseas groups that promote or perform abortions, while Democrats say those moves are overly restrictive.

Lawmakers also have to decide how much money to allocate for preparations for the upcoming decennial census an issue within the Commerce Department that has erupted into a legal spat over a planned question about U.S. citizenship.

Republicans also said earlier this year they struck a deal to provide a pay increase for federal employees, but lawmakers are still working out those details.

Another sticking point in the financial services/general government bill had been a $585 million fund set aside for future generations and pushed by GOP Rep. Tom Graves that would only be accessed if the federal government runs a surplus a prospect some lawmakers have pointed out is remote at best for the foreseeable future.

In the agriculture bill, lawmakers have also been debating language regarding oversight of certain cell-based meats.

The government announced last week that the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should jointly oversee the production of “cell-cultured” poultry and livestock-based food products.

Rep. David Price said there’s a “pretty clear path” to clearing the seven remaining bills and giving the new Congress a clean slate on appropriations if Mr. Trump can get beyond his wall “fixation.”

“Speaking of Republican appropriators, they’ve done a good job in getting these things where they are,” said Mr. Price, the top Democrat on a transportation spending subcommittee. “There are still a few things to work out, but nothing we can’t manage.”

But lawmakers acknowledge that the lack of a resolution on wall funding overshadows the more minor items negotiators are still sorting through.

“If they can get that, I think we can get the rest of the bills done,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs an energy and water spending subcommittee.

In the wake of the California wildfires and hurricanes that ravaged the East Coast this fall, lawmakers also have to decide whether they’ll try to attach a disaster relief package to one of the spending bills or pursue that money separately.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said recently that lawmakers could push for up to $720 million to assist in the recovery from the California wildfires.

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