Political News

Congress Passes Stopgap Bill to Avoid Government Shutdown Against a Friday Deadline

Posted December 21, 2017 11:25 p.m. EST
Updated December 21, 2017 11:30 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval Thursday to legislation to keep the government funded into January, averting a government shutdown this weekend but kicking fights over issues like immigration, surveillance and health care into the new year.

The stopgap spending bill extends government funding until Jan. 19 while also providing a short-term funding fix for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, whose financing lapsed at the end of September.

After the House and Senate succeeded in passing a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul this week, the stopgap bill includes language to prevent automatic spending cuts that would be required to offset the tax bill’s effect on the deficit.

The House passed the bill 231-188, with most Republicans voting for it and most Democrats opposing it. The Senate later gave its approval, as well, in a 66-32 vote.

The extension of government funding saves Republicans from what would have been a colossal embarrassment just after they celebrated passage of the biggest tax rewrite in decades. But the lack of a resolution to several pressing issues leaves lawmakers facing a tough task when they return after the holidays, with the possibility of a high-stakes showdown when the next government funding deadline approaches.

“I guess we better recharge our batteries,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “It seems like Groundhog Day. We get up and do the same thing over and over and over again. It’s maddening.”

Separately, the House voted Thursday to approve $81 billion in additional disaster aid in response to this year’s hurricanes and wildfires. But the Senate does not plan to take action on the aid package until the new year.

The failure to resolve so many issues left bruised feelings in both parties. Promised bills to shield young immigrants from deportation, extend a surveillance program, bolster the military and stabilize health insurance markets were all left for another day.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, declared the stopgap bill to be an “epic failure of governing.”

But the disappointment was not enough to keep Congress from its holiday break.

Lawmakers needed to take action because government funding was set to lapse at the end of Friday, although as Thursday began, it was unclear whether Republican leaders would be able to find the votes they needed to avert a crisis.

President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter in the morning, accusing Democrats of wanting a government shutdown to take attention away from the tax overhaul.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., read Trump’s tweet aloud at a House committee meeting and said that he knew no Democrat or Republican who wanted to shut the government down. Trump, he said, needs to put his Twitter account “under his pillow and sleep on it rather than continue to divide this country the way that he has.”

On Capitol Hill, the big question was whether enough Republicans would support the stopgap spending bill in the House in order to pass it.

Many Republicans in the House have grown impatient as they seek to raise military spending. An earlier stopgap bill would have included long-term funding for the Defense Department, but Republicans ended up backing away from that approach, which would not have been able to get through the Senate. The stopgap bill does include funds for missile defense and for repairs to two Navy destroyers involved in collisions this year.

House Democrats showed little willingness to support a stopgap measure as they pushed for other priorities, including securing a deal to shield from deportation young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children. Such “Dreamers” will have to wait until at least January for action on that issue.

“All of us as members of Congress, we’re eager to return to our families as soon as possible back across America,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “But our Dreamers are left with fear and uncertainty about returning to their families and about their future.”

Democrats complained that Congress was lurching from one crisis to the next, with a stack of big issues still unresolved, including a long-term spending deal.

“We shouldn’t be funding the government week to week, month to month, but yet my Republican friends have ended up doing just that,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “They can’t seem to get their act together.”

The stopgap bill provides money for CHIP and community health centers through March 31. And it directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to distribute leftover CHIP funds to states with the most urgent financial problems so they do not have to shut down the program.

But the $2.85 billion provided for CHIP is far less than the five years of funds that congressional leaders had promised, and it is unclear whether those funds will be adequate. Some states had already begun to inform parents that their children could lose coverage early next year if Congress did not act. The bill does not provide the certainty that state officials had been seeking.

“I do not think this is anywhere close to enough money,” said Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, a child advocacy group. “For a $12 billion to $14 billion program, this provides less than $3 billion for what is effectively six months” — the first half of the 2018 fiscal year, which began in October.

Leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate support legislation to provide five years of funds for CHIP, but they have been unable to agree on how to pay for it. The standoff over CHIP is remarkable because the program has had strong bipartisan support since it was created 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton was president and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

It also comes after the Republicans passed the $1.5 trillion tax measure with little effort to pay for it.

The stopgap bill also extends through Jan. 19 a statute that provides the legal basis for the National Security Agency and FBI’s warrantless surveillance program, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is set to expire Dec. 31. Congress will have to return to the issue of whether to impose new privacy safeguards on that program as part of a longer-term extension.

The bill also includes $2.1 billion to prop up the Veterans Choice program, which pays for veterans facing barriers to care within the government’s health system to get outside help. Lawmakers have been trying for months — thus far, unsuccessfully — to reach an agreement to permanently overhaul and fund the program, and a funding extension would buy them more time.