How to Sell an Omnibus Bill

Does the package have money for a border wall? How about the Gateway tunnel? Yes and no—depending on whose votes you need.

President Trump talks with reporters as he gets a briefing on border-wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
March 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

The policy is largely settled, so now comes the sales job.

With just a day to go before the government is scheduled to run out of funding, congressional negotiators have come to an agreement in principle on most of the pressing issues that have been holding up the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill.

Yet a deal between four leaders means nothing if their members won’t vote for it and if the president won’t sign it. So the two parties have embarked on a campaign to explain why the bill is a win for them.

That is a delicate dance. In a piece of legislation as all-encompassing as an omnibus spending bill—it funds all aspects of the federal government—it is always possible to find something to hate. Democrats and Republicans will take credit for some policies while deriding others as the price of doing business.

More interestingly, there are policies that both sides will try to take credit for, as if reading a single piece of legislative text and understanding it to mean two exactly opposite things. Like Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously alive and dead, in the omnibus there is simultaneously a wall and no wall, a tunnel and no tunnel, depending on who you ask.

Case in point: funding for border security. The bill will include $1.57 billion to that end, for, as a senior GOP source put it, “physical structures and new technology, more than 95 miles worth—more miles than the White House request.” Republicans are eager to sell this as an important step toward delivering on President Trump’s promise to build a border wall.

That is not satisfying House conservatives, however. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said the facts of the legislation don’t match the spin.

“There is really no wall funding. People will try to spin it as there is wall funding, but the $1.6 [billion] has been in there for a long time,” he said. “To suggest that $1.6 [billion] is any kind of a substantial down payment is just not accurate.”

For Democratic leaders, too, there is no wall to be found. Instead, they are selling their members on the concept that they were able to hold Trump at bay by insisting that only fencing or levees be built, as originally authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006—and only 33 miles at that, with the rest coming in the form of technology, according to a senior Democratic source.

Another issue that Republicans and Democrats will try to spin in opposite ways is funding for the Gateway tunnel project, a planned shipping-tunnel system under the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York. Trump threatened to veto the omnibus if it included language authorizing funding for the tunnel project, but it is a huge priority for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Sources on the Hill have speculated that Trump wanted to lean on Schumer to force through funding for the border wall. That did not materialize, so the omnibus instead contains language described by sources as an attempt at face-saving.

The funding had been written into the bill as an earmark of sorts, not including the Gateway project by name but instead describing certain specifications that qualify a project for funding—specifications only that project could fulfill. That language will not be part of the omnibus, allowing the White House to claim that the project is not funded, or at least that it will “compete with other projects on a level playing field,” according to the senior GOP source.

Democrats, however, point to increases to the budgets of Amtrak and the Capital Investment Grant Program to make the case that the project can and will continue unimpeded.

For some Democrats, the hardest aspect of the omnibus to come to terms with is the fact that it does not include legislation protecting from deportation participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—immigrants who came to the country illegally when they were underage.

“I don’t understand why we haven’t dealt with DACA,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on Wednesday. “This is something that the speaker agrees with. … The only conclusion can be … that he is afraid of the hard-liners in his party.”

The Trump administration offered a two-and-a-half year deal to protect those immigrants in exchange for $25 billion to fully fund the border wall, but Democrats turned it down. They see little urgency; Trump threatened to end the program, but he can’t as court challenges wind their way slowly through the system.

Other issues have completely turned conservatives against the bill. Among them is a policy that would give grants to cities and states that report criminals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to help identify people who should not be able to buy guns. Conservatives had wanted a concealed-carry-reciprocity measure included, but that did not make the cut.

“We knew it was coming back without concealed-carry reciprocity, so I don’t think you’re finding too many Second Amendment conservatives who are clutching their pearls,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said.

Still, they will not be clutching their voting card and voting yes, either.

“Planned Parenthood gets money. The unconstitutional NICS program gets money. Gateway gets money. The American taxpayer gets a trillion-dollar deficit and no money for the wall. That’s not in any way close to what the election was about, close to what we campaigned on,” Rep. Jim Jordan said. “I’m voting against it … and if the bill passed the way it is I hope the White House vetoes it.”

The White House has already said the president will sign the bill—if it gets to his desk.

Democrats view the NICS policy as a half measure, of sorts. Though they are pleased to see some action on gun-policy reform, Hoyer, who spent the early part of the week consoling victims of a school shooting in his district, said this and other school-safety bills Congress considered are not enough.

“That was saying to the public we’re doing something and saying to the [National Rifle Association] we’re not doing anything,” he said. “In my opinion, we need to deal with bump stocks, we need to deal with magazines, we need to deal with … assault rifles.”

Assuming Republicans and Democrats can convince enough of their members that there is more good than bad in the bill, it will come to the House floor on Thursday with a Senate debate to follow.

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