Major Omnibus Issues Left Unsettled as Clock Ticks Down

Leaders are racing to decide which bills will hitch a ride on what will probably be the last major legislative package of the year.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
March 19, 2018, 8:42 p.m.

With the government-funding deadline only days away, House Republican leaders called a GOP Conference meeting late Monday to brief their members about the bill. There was just one problem: They didn’t have much to tell them.

The issues left outstanding heading into the make-or-break deadline are myriad and thorny.

How or whether to fund the Gateway project that would construct a rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York, but that President Trump said he would veto the omnibus bill over?

“That’s being negotiated,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said.

Replenishing funding for the Veterans Choice program that lets some veterans seek health care from a community provider outside of a Veterans Affairs medical system?

“It’s not in right now; let’s put it that way,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles Veterans Affairs funding.

Including a temporary or even a long-term fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields from deportation some immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, potentially as a trade for border-wall funding?

“They might be discussing it, but there isn’t a lot of hope,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, an advocate for the program.

Including a provision that would offer financial incentives to cities and states to report people’s criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which could prevent criminals from purchasing guns?

“I hope so,” Rep. Roger Williams said.

“We don’t know what’s in it,” Williams added of the omnibus. “The message is, ‘Let’s talk it over; let’s hear where your issues are, what you want, what you don’t want, and stay tuned.’”

There are a few issues that have been resolved—most commonly by dropping them from consideration altogether.

Dent said a measure he hoped would strengthen the Export-Import Bank has been dropped. Rep. Kristi Noem said her pet project to allow states to tax online purchases didn’t make the cut either (and she added that the next step will be to gather signatures on a discharge petition to force a floor vote).

Notably, leaders have decided not to include a provision that would prop up Obamacare by issuing federal payments to insurance companies in order for them to lower premiums. Republicans said they gave up on that plan because Democrats rejected their efforts to ensure none of the federal money is spent on health care plans that fund abortion—a measure known as a Hyde protection.

“I think it costs you votes,” said Rep. Tom Cole, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles health care. “If you don’t accept the Hyde protections for it—and they wouldn’t—that’s a nonstarter with all our pro-life members, which is a big majority. And secondly, people think, ‘Why should I fund the system I voted against, don’t support, with no reform attached to it?’”

Other issues remain in flux, however. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he is seeking a so-called “grain glitch” fix, which would amend a provision in the recently passed tax bill that gave exceedingly generous tax benefits to farmers who sell to cooperatives rather than corporations.

“I’d like to fix that. That’s critical. It needs to go in, and it needs to be fixed one way or the other,” McCarthy said.

But he added that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has expressed reservations about using the appropriations process to fix the tax bill Democrats did not support in the first place, is asking for too much in return—although he wouldn’t specify for what, exactly.

“He’s asking for like $5 billion. That’s unreasonable. But we’ve got to fix that problem. We’ve got to. It’s real-life problems in a short time frame. You had government pick a winner and loser,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s office later clarified that Schumer is asking for the extra funds for the low-income housing tax credit. Schumer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Border-wall funding remains a high-profile sticking point, as well. McCarthy said Democrats rejected an offer from the White House to include a two-and-a-half-year extension of the DACA program in exchange for $25 billion in wall funding. McCarthy said many of his members would have supported that. Democrats are also looking at the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and added beds in detention facilities as benchmarks for whether to support the omnibus.

Although leaders are still hoping to negotiate a satisfactory outcome, Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Carter was more fatalistic.

“Right now they’re opposed to anything on the border,” he said of Democrats.

Whether that will be paired with any kind of DACA fix remains to be seen, as well, Dent said.

“We will have to pass a Homeland Security funding bill in this omni. It will have to happen. I just can’t tell you what deals will have to be made to make it happen,” Dent said. “I’m all for doing something on DACA in conjunction with getting operational control of the border, but we’ll see if we can get an agreement.”

McCarthy said he still hopes to hold a House vote on Wednesday, but that if negotiations drift and the text can’t be released until Tuesday, the chamber will vote on Thursday instead. In that case, he said, he is open to the possibility of a short-term continuing resolution for a matter of days to give the Senate time to debate and pass the bill.

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