Congress averts shutdown, focuses on tax, spending bills
Avoiding the high drama of recent year-end budget fights, Congress approved legislation Friday keeping government agencies open into next week, giving White House and congressional bargainers more time to complete sweeping deals on taxes and federal spending.
Facing a midnight deadline to act, the House used a voice vote to keep government afloat through Wednesday and sent the measure to President Barack Obama for his certain signature. The Senate approved the bill a day earlier, its easy sojourn through Congress underscoring that neither party saw reason to risk a government shutdown battle.
Talks were likely to stretch at least into the weekend over the environment, Syrian refugees, guns and dozens of other disputes sprinkled across two major bills. One would provide $1.1 trillion to finance government for 2016; the other would renew around 50 expiring tax cuts for businesses and individuals that, with additions, could swell to a 10-year price tag of $700 billion or more.
Disagreements remained but show-stopping, partisan quarrels were already resolved, lowering the decibel level of this year's budget endgame. The overall $1.1 trillion spending total was previously cemented in place, leaving only spending details to resolve, and Republicans decided to avoid shutdown brinkmanship with Obama by omitting provisions dismantling his 2010 health care law and halting Planned Parenthood's money.
GOP lawmakers also attributed the lessened intensity to new Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who replaced the ousted John Boehner, R-Ohio, this fall. They said they needed to finish this year's work and focus on passing election-year bills in 2016 highlighting GOP priorities on taxes and health care.
"There's a honeymoon period in here," conservative Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said of Ryan's recent ascension to the top House job. "And I think Paul's articulated very well where we want to go."
Leaders were hoping Congress would adjourn for the year next week after approving the two measures.
Republicans were seeking to insert language into the bills ending the four-decade-old ban on U.S. oil exports and curbing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., a response to last month's deadly attacks in Paris. They also wanted to roll back legal curbs on the financial industry, prevent Obama from easing ties with Cuba and block his efforts to fight air and water pollution.
Yet though Republicans dominate Congress, the aversion of many GOP lawmakers to spending bills meant Democratic votes would be needed to pass that sweeping $1.1 trillion package.
Seeking to use her leverage, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was threatening to withhold Democratic support unless Republicans agreed to annual inflation increases to a tax credit for children.
"Lifting the ban on oil (exports) and all of the money that means for the oil industry" without boosting the children's tax credit is "too big, it's unfair and it does not have the support of House Democrats," Pelosi told reporters.
Pelosi was also seeking more money for renewable energy and an end to curbs on federal research into gun violence, an issue given life by last week's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Uncertainty remained as to whether lawmakers would pull off a major tax bill with permanent extensions benefiting both sides, or simply opt for a two-year extension of existing tax breaks.
Republicans wanted business tax breaks for research and development and for equipment purchases to be made permanent. For their part, Democrats were seeking permanence for Obama-passed increases in tax credits for low-earning households, families with children and college students.
In another fight, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other California Republicans blamed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for blocking a provision aimed at bringing more water to the state's farm belt amid a severe drought. At a news conference, the Republicans said Feinstein abandoned a deal in which GOP lawmakers had conceded to Democratic demands, including protection of endangered species.
Feinstein said the language likely would have violated environmental law.
"I expect that by early next week we'll have a bill that the state and federal government can sign off on," Feinstein said in a statement.