Grumbling, frustration on Capitol Hill as members anxiously await spending bill

Patience is running thin on Capitol Hill, where rank-and-file members are waiting anxiously ...

Posted: Mar 21, 2018 6:01 AM
Updated: Mar 21, 2018 6:01 AM

Patience is running thin on Capitol Hill, where rank-and-file members are waiting anxiously for a $1.3 trillion spending bill to finally be released just days ahead of when they'll vote on it.

Lawmakers must fund the government by midnight Friday or risk a shutdown, but the bill -- which is anticipated to run hundreds of pages -- isn't public yet. It was expected to be released over the weekend or Monday, but as of late afternoon Tuesday, negotiators were still crafting it.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it?" said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. "It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous that we come up against these fiscal cliffs. It's just ridiculous. This is no way to run a railroad or a government."

Behind the scenes, the negotiations have fallen to leadership staff and members, while rank-and-filers say they are largely in the dark about what they'll have to vote on.

Those close to the negotiations say that there is still disagreement over a handful of policy riders, from one plan that would incentivize states to enter more records into the country's gun background check system to money for a project that would improve transportation infrastructure between New York and New Jersey but is opposed by President Donald Trump.

But lawmakers say that the crunch is predictable, typical and 100% avoidable. For weeks lawmakers have known the funding deadline was looming.

"This is frustrating for a lot of us because we've known for 60 days that this was coming," said Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota. "The fact that we are struggling to get it done with deadlines coming up is not the way we should be doing business here, it's not the way the American people expect us to do our business and it's not the way any state does business."

Other sticking points over the omnibus spending measure include funding for immigration enforcement and school safety. Senate Republicans are also trying to make some technical fixes to their tax bill, something Democrats were united in voting against back in December. One such fix would be aimed at grain farmers who under the current tax law get a larger tax break for selling their grain to co-ops rather than other buyers.

At this point, all that haggling is happening between leadership in the House and the Senate.

"This is a terrible way to do business," said Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. "There's a handful of issues. You have four people who are basically deciding what's in the bill and we get to vote up or down. That's not optimal, to say the least."

One of the most frustrating issues for a handful of Republican senators is that an Obamacare marketplace stabilization bill that's been in the works for months may not be included in the final spending package.

The legislation, which was authored by Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine, is aimed at reducing some premiums for individuals in the Obamacare marketplace. Collins was promised she'd get a vote on the legislation back when she vowed to support the GOP tax bill. But Democrats have said they won't accept language to restrict payments from going to insurance plans that cover the costs of abortions, and some House conservatives have balked at doing anything to boost a health care law they tried to repeal.

During a GOP conference meeting Monday night, House leaders had been met with applause when they told the conference that marketplace stabilization likely wouldn't be included in the final bill because Democrats didn't agree with their abortion-restriction language.

"It amazes me that anyone would be in opposition to a bill that has the potential to reduce insurance rates by as much as 40% over the next two years and expand coverage," Collins said.

Lawmakers said they could still make up time and get the omnibus finished on schedule as long as senators signed off on a time agreement to move ahead. The biggest question mark is Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky who held up the last spending bill and forced a brief government shutdown. Paul told reporters Tuesday he hadn't decided whether he'd force lawmakers to run out the clock.

"I want to know what's in the bill before I agree to anything," Paul said. "I will oppose the bill. I haven't made a decision yet on whether or not I will consent to time agreements."

Asked if he was getting worried about how much time was running out, Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who's the chairman of the Senate's Intelligence Committee -- and has been leading an investigation into Russian election meddling and has been faced with an onslaught of questions about the President's tweets on that investigation -- said he had other concerns.

"It's the least of my worries," Burr said about the omnibus timing.

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