Los Angeles Times
By Lisa Mascaro
December 21, 2017
Congress is set to approve the largest disaster aid package in U.S. history — $81 billion to help California and the Gulf states recover from wildfires and hurricanes — as well as a stopgap funding measure to prevent a government shutdown Friday, as lawmakers scrambled to wrap up business before a Christmas break.
The stopgap measure would continue federal operations for a few more weeks, setting up another deadline for Jan. 19. It would leave undone a long list of priorities that members of both parties had hoped to finish this year.
The spending bill, which is expected to pass the House on Thursday afternoon and the Senate later, would fund three more months of the Childrens’ Health Insurance Program, which provides insurance for nearly 9 million children nationwide. Congress has been deadlocked on a longer-term renewal of the popular program, and several states are on the verge of running out of money to keep it open.
The bill would also extend for a few weeks the National Security Agency’s legal authority for domestic surveillance of emails, which is set to expire at the end of the month. The debate over major reforms in the program would be punted, along with many other issues, into the new year.
Among the unresolved issues is protection for the young immigrants called Dreamers, who face the threat of deportation starting in March because of President Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era DACA program, which allowed them to stay and work in the U.S.
Gaining a permanent legislative fix for the Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, was a top priority for Democrats, some of whom had promised to oppose any year-end spending bill that did not include it.
More than 1,000 Dreamers and advocates continued protests and lawmaker visits Thursday at the Capitol. In the end, though, moderate Democrats said they would not risk a government shutdown at this point over the issue. Party leaders promised to fight out the issue in January.
“There’s a lot of justifiable anger and disappointment that [the] Dream Act didn’t pass before the holidays, but we remain optimistic that we’re going to get it done,” said Frank Sharry, executive director at America’s Voice, an immigrant-advocacy organization.
Passage of both the year-end spending bill and the disaster aid package has been uncertain all week as the Republican majority, particularly in the House, fought over priorities. Defense hawks pushed unsuccessfully for a big boost in military spending. Conservatives opposed the disaster package unless it included offsetting cuts to other programs.
In the end, though, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) appealed to GOP lawmakers to capitalize on the unified front they had shown in passing the tax-cut bill this week, hoping to end the year on a political high note.
“Let’s stand together, be a team,” Ryan urged lawmakers in a private meeting in the Capitol basement, according to a person present in the room who was not authorized to speak on the record. Ryan reminded bickering lawmakers that their divisions only served up opportunities for Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, to leverage their votes for their own priorities.
Trump echoed that message in a morning tweet: “House Democrats want a SHUTDOWN for the holidays in order to distract from the very popular, just passed, Tax Cuts. House Republicans, don’t let this happen. Pass the C.R. TODAY and keep our Government OPEN!”
The huge disaster-aid package signals what experts have warned will be greater expenses for covering natural calamities as the climate changes.
It includes $4.4 billion California sought for wildfires earlier this season, but does not include recovery money for the devastating Thomas fire, among the biggest ever recorded. Congressional leaders expect to consider more money for the costs of that fire in 2018.
The spending measure will keep most government operations running at existing levels, with some slight boosts for the military – including construction of a missile field in Alaska which is intended to boost defenses against the threat of an attack by North Korea — but not the big increase sought by defense hawks.
CHIP will receive $2.8 billion to continue funding through March, but not the broader authorization governors and advocates have been seeking.
Republicans made good on a promise to shield Medicare and other programs for steep cuts that could result if the just-passed GOP tax plan adds to deficits, which it is expected to do. The measure would waive so-called pay-as-you-go spending rules, which are supposed to trigger automatic cuts when Congress passes a measure, like the tax bill, that will increase the federal deficit.
Congress has often waived that rule in the past, and another waiver was one of the conditions Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) won in exchange for her vote in favor of the tax bill. Collins relented, for now, on other demands to stabilize the Affordable Care Act, which GOP leaders promised her they would address next year.
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