WASHINGTON — Hours before a deadline, Congress was working Thursday to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown while they worked on a broader deal to fund agencies through September. Republicans were readying to pass the week-long funding bill on their own after Democrats, who tend to back these short-term bills, threatened to oppose it if Republicans moved a fresh Obamacare repeal bill.
A top Democrat — House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer — issued a statement Thursday morning saying he’ll advise his fellow Democrats to oppose the one-week bill if Republicans try to pass their latest version of health care reform in the next couple of days.
The short-term bill, planned for a vote Friday, must be passed by midnight to keep federal agencies open through May 5.
While no health care vote has been scheduled, Republicans have reached new agreements within their own caucus to improve their chances of passing their health care bill, and it’s possible they could bring it up for a vote by the end of the week.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a news conference that the House would act when Republicans feel they “have the votes” to pass their bill, though he gave no indication of a time frame.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t directly confirm whether there’s a Democratic strategy underway to block the short-term bill. She said her party was still pushing to resolve “outstanding areas of concern” in the one-week bill, but she insisted Democrats “don’t even have the power” to shut down the government.
The uncertainty has spread renewed alarm on Capitol Hill after tensions had already eased earlier in the week. Following President Donald Trump’s decision to scrap certain demands over health care spending and the proposed border wall, progress appeared to be in the works.
In anticipation of the one-week spending bill from the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to get unanimous consent agreement Thursday night to pass it ahead of time.
But, playing some hardball, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer objected.
He said Republicans must first agree to remove “poison pill” riders — or amendments that have little-to-no bipartisan support — in the long-term bill before getting an agreement to pass a short-term bill. He did this to try to put pressure on GOP negotiators to cut a deal, according to a Democratic leadership aide.
While talks will continue, senators who wanted to leave town for the weekend will have to stay in Washington Friday and possibly vote on this short-term bill sometime before the midnight deadline.
In the meantime, negotiators in both parties are close to an agreement on a much larger, longer-term spending package that would wrap several funding measures for different agencies into one giant bill.
The goal is to pass the omnibus bill during the one-week extension, but differences remain and leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are still haggling over the final points — with input from bipartisan leadership and the White House.
Ryan said Thursday he was “confident” the government would keep running, but placed any threat of a shutdown on Democrats.
“I would be shocked that they’d want to see a government shutdown,” Ryan said referring to Democrats during a news conference when asked about Hoyer’s comments.
The speaker blamed Democrats for the lack of a spending deal, saying they were “dragging their feet” and in some cases failed to show up for meetings about the spending bill.
At about the same time Hoyer made his threat, Schumer was on the floor praising the talks and vowing to work to keep the government open.
“There are a few remaining issues to be settled,” he said. “But I believe that there we are close to a final agreement. Our side will continue to work in good faith to see that an agreement is reached to keep the government open by tomorrow’s deadline.”
Like Pelosi, Schumer also wouldn’t say whether he was pushing the same threat as Hoyer. He said he doesn’t believe Republicans should try to rush “through a health care bill in the dark of night,” but when pressed whether he’d urge Senate Democrats to try to block the short-term bill, he demurred.
“We’re not up to that yet,” he said in a press conference, holding his hand up.
At the same time, Trump unleashed a tweetstorm Thursday putting pressure on Democrats and blasting them for what he described as untenable demands on a range of issues from national parks to health benefits for coal miners.
While waiting for a deal to be struck, Republican senators munched on lazy lobster and Maine potatoes with blueberry pie for dessert at a luncheon in the Capitol put on by Maine’s Susan Collins. Republican senators rotate sponsoring a lunch for their colleagues — each with food themes from their states — and Collins’ lobster offering is considered one of the most popular. Forty-three of the 52 Republican senators were on hand.