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Lawmakers unveil massive spending bill as Friday deadline looms

Congressional negotiators have released a massive spending bill as a Friday night funding deadline looms.
Image: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Republican policy luncheon
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 20, 2018.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan agreement on a $1.3 trillion spending package was reached Wednesday after a days-long impasse over issues involving border security, an infrastructure project and gun-related provisions. The deal would keep the government funded through September and prevent a government shutdown — if it’s passed and signed into law by the Friday night deadline.

The release of the 2,232-page measure came hours after congressional leaders met in the morning to discuss a few remaining details. House lawmakers were originally aiming for a Thursday floor vote, but that may be pushed back by a day. Funding expires just before midnight Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday night that "Democrats feel very good" about the bill, pointing to provisions including funding to fight the opioid epidemic and provide student loan and child care relief.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., praised the compromise in a statement, saying that "no bill of this size is perfect." “House appropriators have ensured that increases in non-defense spending are directed at securing the homeland, protecting our schools, and rebuilding American infrastructure," he said.

Several hours before the bill's release, Ryan was seen leaving the White House after meeting with President Donald Trump about the measure. In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had spoken with Trump about "shared priorities secured" in the current version of the spending bill, including funding for construction of a border wall — which would receive a fraction of the amount sought by the administration.

Other attendees included Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short, according to a senior White House official.

Trump is "supportive of the bill," Ryan spokesman Doug Andres added. "They had a good conversation about the wins delivered for the president."

Congress has until midnight Friday to pass the spending package ahead of a two-week recess for Easter and Passover.

The bill includes a compromise on one of the president's top priorities: a new border wall. Instead of allocating all of the wall funds Trump had sought, it was slated to provide roughly $1.6 billion for physical barriers and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border. The amount only included $641 million for 33 miles of new border fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, not a concrete wall.

In recent days, the White House had requested $25 billion for Trump’s proposed border wall over three years in exchange for a 2.5-year extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which President Barack Obama created in 2012 to defer deportations for people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Democrats rejected that offer.

This deal does not address DACA, which the Trump administration had announced last September would end, tasking Congress with coming up with a legislative solution.

Image: Schumer speaks with reporters following weekly policy luncheons
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks with reporters following weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 20, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The measure would provide a backdoor for construction to begin on the Gateway Project, a new rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey, by making some of the federal funding that supporters wanted available through money appropriated for Amtrak and other accounts. As much as $541 million in funding would be available for the project this year, a Democratic aide said, with an extra $2.9 billion in grants also being made available.

Trump had quietly threatened to veto the bill if it contained funding for Gateway, but Republican lawmakers who represent districts in the region had lobbied him to support the effort. The Democratic source said that the Department of Transportation will have “a limited ability to withhold the funding” despite Trump’s opposition to the project, and that the bill includes language that requires the transportation secretary to sign off on grants in compliance with requirements in current law. At the same time, this portion of the bill can be viewed as a compromise because it doesn’t make as much available for the project as originally requested.

The deal would not cut funding for Planned Parenthood and there are no provisions that defund so-called sanctuary cities, said the Democratic source. The bill also provides for more than $300 million above the Trump administration's request for the FBI’s efforts to fight terrorism, violent crime, election fraud and cybercrime, including Russian cyberattacks in 2018.

Both Democrats and Republicans applauded the more than $3 billion increase to help battle the opioid epidemic, as well as funding increases for programs to help veterans and for medical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Fix NICS, a bipartisan Senate bill that aims to improve state compliance with the national background check system for firearm purchases, is wrapped into the spending package. The measure also includes language to clarify that nothing in the bill precludes gun violence research, which has been effectively banned by Congress at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for more than 20 years. It also includes portions of a bill that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was pushing for after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month to help schools implement programs intended to prevent school violence.

A major funding increase for school safety was wrapped into the bill as well. The bill would provide more than $2 billion for school safety, far more than the $50 million the House passed in the STOP School Violence Act and more than the $100 million in the Senate version of a similar bill. Democrats had argued that the $2 billion figure is Republican spin because that total includes money for programs that already exist. The bill does not provide money for arming teachers.

The bill does not include the special protection that some lawmakers had suggested for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who oversees the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. An aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told NBC that Pelosi and Schumer repeatedly proposed language that would protect Mueller, but that Republicans rejected their requests.

It also doesn’t address sexual harassment issues on Capitol Hill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., blasted Republicans Tuesday for stripping language she had proposed from the package that she said “would have finally brought accountability and transparency to Congress’s sexual harassment reporting process.” A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., however, rejected the idea that the language was stripped from the bill, as he said it was never formally adopted.

The bill excludes language to extend Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments. The Trump administration last year that because there were no congressional appropriations for the payments, it would stop making them. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had been pushing for months for a bipartisan compromise.

While the bill ignores Trump’s original request to slash funding for the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) by 30 percent, the measure freezes the agency’s funding at last year’s levels.

Republicans won’t be able to pass the measure without some Democratic votes, at least in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to end debate and advance the bill. Republicans currently have 51 senators, while Democrats have 49.