Fearful of a Shutdown, Congress Inches Toward Stopgap Spending Bill

Senator Susan Collins of Maine put aside her concerns about health care funding to vote for the tax plan.

WASHINGTON — An end-of-the-year showdown that was once promised over delicate issues like immigration, health care and surveillance appeared to fizzle on Wednesday as key Republicans dropped their demands to shore up shaky health insurance markets and Democrats appeared to abandon their goal to force adoption of a measure protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Instead, Congress moved toward a one-month punt that would keep the government funded into January and once again put off policy confrontations.

As Republicans celebrated the passage of their tax overhaul at the White House with President Trump, the party’s leaders in the House and Senate worked behind the scenes to shape a stopgap spending measure to fund federal agencies and avert a government shutdown.

Only days ago, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she would vote for the tax bill because she had secured a promise from the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to include two health care provisions to stabilize insurance markets in an end-of-the-year spending measure. On Wednesday, she dropped that demand and said she hoped it would be passed in early 2018.

“It looks like the Christmas present of lower health insurance premiums will now have to be a Valentine’s Day present,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who had joined Ms. Collins’s demand.

Similarly, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, traded his vote on the tax bill, in part for a promise from Republican leaders to consider a deal to protect young immigrants brought into the United States as children, known as Dreamers. Mr. McConnell said on Wednesday that if negotiators could reach bipartisan agreement on the deal in January, he would put it to a full Senate vote.

Behind those decisions was a desire to avoid confrontation and leave Washington for the Christmas holiday.

“I can’t think of a bigger act of political malpractice after a successful tax reform vote than to shut the government down,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania. “Talk about stepping on your own message. I mean, really, how dumb would that be?”

But the price for peace was anger and frustration in both parties.

By maintaining current spending levels into January, Republican leaders would make it difficult to bolster military spending as promised until well into the fiscal year. Democrats, especially in the House, said they were outraged that their leaders again squandered a moment of leverage to leave young immigrants unprotected.

“To everybody who says, ‘We can wait until next year’ — we can’t,” said Representative Luis Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois. “Because you know what? Your work permit didn’t expire. Your children are not going to face deportation. Your hope for the future does not vanish.”

But no final decisions were made on Wednesday, and funding for much of the government runs out at midnight Friday. Still awaiting attention is the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, whose funding expired on Oct. 1, as well as legislation to reauthorize a program allowing warrantless surveillance of foreigners abroad, which expires Dec. 31.

House Republicans seemed poised to attach a short-term extension of the surveillance program to that chamber’s spending bill, which would fund the government through Jan. 19. The Senate was likely to follow a similar course, putting off the question of what to do about the law until early next year.

Also left unresolved is an $81 billion package of relief for hurricane- and fire-ravaged areas. House Republicans have put together a measure that would provide the money, raising the total amount of disaster aid approved by Congress since September to more than $130 billion. But it is unclear when the measure will be considered.

With the punt, lawmakers from both parties appear determined to avoid a Christmas Eve crisis.

House Republicans had previously unveiled a plan that would provide temporary funding to keep the government open through Jan. 19, coupled with a full year of funding for the Defense Department. But that approach would be a nonstarter in the Senate, where Democrats have the power to block spending measures.

House Republicans have since backed away from that plan, only to face resistance from defense hawks in their conference during a closed-door meeting Wednesday evening as they tried to corral the votes necessary to pass the spending bill.

“Right now, this is all about defense,’’ said Representative Chris Collins, Republican of New York. “It comes down to, the defense hawks want money and assurances that, unfortunately, the Senate’s not in a position to give them.”

Although the 2018 fiscal year began on Oct. 1, lawmakers are still far from reaching an agreement on a long-term spending package to fund the government.

Republican and Democratic leaders want to reach a deal to raise strict spending caps that were imposed in 2011. But they have so far been unable to agree, and until such a pact is made, a long-term spending bill cannot be negotiated.

Leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate support legislation to provide five years of funding for CHIP, but they have been unable to agree on how to pay for it. And Republicans insist that Congress must find a way to offset the cost of new spending on the program, a position that infuriates Democrats, who say the tax bill was not “paid for.”

“All these senators that have insurance paid for by the taxpayers are celebrating at the White House today, doing this tax cut, while they’re willing to go home having not taken care of 209,000 children in my state,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.

“Millions of families in the United States are now facing Christmas vaguely understanding that insurance for their children might be cut off at the end of the year,” Mr. Brown said.

As it became increasingly clear that Congress would put off action on Democratic priorities like CHIP and immigration, some Democrats and activists accused Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, of giving up.

NextGen America, a group that often focuses on climate and energy issues, said Democrats should vote against the spending bill if it did not include the immigration measure, known as the Dream Act.

“If we truly want to be the party of progress and opportunity, the party of ‘Si, se puede,’ then we must protect young immigrants,” said the group’s founder, Tom Steyer, using Spanish for “Yes, we can.” “Leaders Pelosi and Schumer looked Dreamers in the eye and promised to stand up for them — and now is the time to do it. If we won’t fight for our young people, then what are we doing?”

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and the chamber’s main champion of the Dream Act, said the White House had been demanding a number of border security and enforcement measures that Democrats opposed.

One Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations in the Senate said that Democrats were increasingly worried that they would be blamed for a government shutdown if their party blocked the spending bill and held firm on having an immigration deal before January.

But Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, Democrat of New Mexico and the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said she refused to accept that lawmakers would choose to go home for the holidays while young undocumented immigrants were holding hunger strikes and being arrested at protests to keep families together.

“The second I accept that we can do something later is the second I tell folks who are here — losing their jobs, having their families separated, taking incredible risks — that their issues and the parents who are struggling to have CHIP funding, and veterans, that they are not worth our support,” she said.

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