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Shutdown looming, Congress and White House seek budget deal

The U.S. Capitol in the early morning in December in Washington. Top-level Capitol Hill talks on a massive $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill are reaching a critical stage as negotiators confront controversies related to immigration and abortion, and a battle over a massive rail project that pits President Donald Trump against his most powerful Democratic adversary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The U.S. Capitol seen in the early morning one day in December. Top-level Capitol Hill talks on a massive $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill are reaching a critical stage as negotiators confront controversies related to immigration and abortion, and a battle over a massive rail project that pits President Donald Trump against his most powerful Democratic adversary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders and the White House are pressing to strike an accord on a $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill, although disputes remain over immigration, abortion and a massive rail project that pits President Donald Trump against his most powerful Democratic adversary.

An agreement by Monday would pave the way for a House vote on Wednesday. Action is needed by midnight Friday to avert another government shutdown.

The bipartisan measure is loaded with political and policy victories for both sides. Republicans and Trump are winning a long-sought budget increase for the Pentagon while Democrats obtain money for infrastructure, the opioid crisis and a wide swath of domestic policies.

The bill would carry out last month’s big budget agreement, providing 10 percent increases for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies when compared with current levels. Coupled with last year’s tax cuts, it heralds the return of trillion-dollar budget deficits as soon as the budget year that starts in October.

Although most of the funding questions in the enormous measure have been sorted out, fights involving a number of policy “riders” — so named because they catch a ride on a difficult-to-stop spending bill — continued into the weekend.

Among them were uphill GOP-led efforts to add a plan to revive federal subsidies to help the poor cover out-of-pocket costs under President Barack Obama’s health law and to eliminate a glitch in the recent tax bill that subsidizes grain sales to cooperatives at the expense of for-profit grain companies.

Efforts to use the measure as a vehicle to extend protections for young immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, appeared likely to fail, aides said. Trump killed the Obama-era program in September, but a court decision has essentially left it in place, for now. The White House had revived the idea in recent days, but conservative Republicans remained opposed to it.

“I’m urging the leaders to basically come together and understand there is an emergency at hand here — 780,000 young people have their lives hang in the balance because President Trump killed the DACA program. We have to move on a bipartisan basis to put it back in business,” said the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, on “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump, meanwhile, has privately threatened to veto the whole proposal if a $900 million payment is made on the Hudson River Gateway Project, a priority of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Trump’s opposition is alarming Northeastern Republicans such as Peter King, a House member from New York who lobbied Trump on the project at a St. Patrick’s luncheon in the Capitol on Thursday.

The Gateway Project would add an $11 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River to complement deteriorating, century-old tunnels that are at risk of closing in a few years. It enjoys bipartisan support among Appropriations panel negotiators  who want to get the expensive project on track while their coffers are flush with money.

Most House Republicans voted to kill the funding last year, however, preferring to see the money spread to a greater number of districts.

“Obviously, if we’re doing a huge earmark … it’s troubling,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of House conservatives. “Why would we do that … Schumer’s pet project and we pass that under a Republican-controlled Senate, House and White House?”

Schumer has stayed low, avoiding stoking a battle with the unpredictable Trump. One possible resolution is to include money for Gateway but not specifically earmark it for the project.

There’s also a continuing battle over Trump’s long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall. Although Trump traveled to California on Tuesday to inspect prototypes for the wall, what’s pending now is $1.6 billion for earlier designs involving sections in Texas that double as levees and 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego.

It appears Democrats may be willing to accept money for a wall, but they are battling hard against Trump’s demands for big increases for immigration agents and detention beds they fear would enable wide-scale roundups of immigrants illegally living in the U.S.

Republicans are holding firm against a provision by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., designed to make sure that Planned Parenthood, intensely disliked by anti-abortion Republicans, receives a lion’s share of federal family-planning grants.

But another abortion-related provision — backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — that would strengthen “conscience protection” for health-care providers that refuse to provide abortions remained unresolved heading into the final round of talks, although Democrats opposing it have prevailed in the past.

One item that appears likely to catch a ride on the must-pass measure is a series of telecommunications bills, including a measure to free up airwaves for wireless users in anticipation of new 5G technology.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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