Congressional negotiators were nearing a deal Tuesday on massive spending legislation that would avert a government shutdown and bring the 113th Congress to a close, but they are bumping up against the seasonal effort to make year-end legislation a Christmas tree, ornamented with a wish-list of legislative add-ons.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emphasized Tuesday afternoon that negotiations over the spending bill were ongoing, citing a litany of nearly 100 policy riders pushed by House Republicans affecting women's health, the environment, health care and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. "No one wins from these cliffhanger fights we're having," Reid said.
But, the Majority Leader added, he remains "optimistic that even Republicans don't want a shutdown."
With just two days left before the current government funding expires, the House will bring to the floor a short-term continuing resolution, lasting just a few days, to buy the chambers more time to negotiate, according to a House GOP aide. Reid warned that members of the Senate could be forced to work through the weekend -- and even, possibly, into next week -- in order to resolve the spending issue.
Also on Reid's list of must-pass legislation is a bill to extend dozens of tax breaks that expired last year, the approval of more than a dozen of President Obama's nominees and a reauthorization for the nation's defense programs. The defense bill hit a snag on Tuesday, further complicating the Senate's calendar as members prepare to leave town.
Sen. Tom Coburn objected to proceeding with the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday over the attachment of a federal lands bill. Reid said he would file cloture on that measure later Tuesday, setting up a vote on final passage later this week.
Once the defense bill has passed, the Senate will move on to the spending bill and then take up the tax extender package. In the interim, Reid said he wants the chamber to confirm several nominees, including nine judges, new directors for the Social Security Administration and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as the controversial nomination of Vivek Murthy to become the new Surgeon General. Murthy's nomination faces the most issues, with even some conservative Democrats balking at his comments linking gun violence with health.
"There's a very, very good chance we'll be here this weekend," Reid said.
A path to a passable spending bill grew easier on Tuesday when House Republicans, culminating months of negotiations, decided to remove the reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act from the underlying bill. Instead, the lower chamber will pass TRIA, the government's backstop to businesses and other groups in the event of catastrophic terrorist attacks, as a separate measure. Negotiators had considered packaging the bill with an omnibus spending bill, but Senate Democrats refuse to budge on changes Republicans want regarding the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill.
"The Democrats' ideological and irrational zeal for Dodd-Frank is holding up a long-term reauthorization of TRIA," said a GOP aide. "Our side is trying to get a clarification – not a change – on Dodd-Frank's treatment of manufacturers, ranchers and farmers."
A Senate Democratic aide dismissed that notion. "This is an attempt to kill the bill, pure and simple. Adding in an extraneous, unrelated Dodd-Frank issue that Democrats, and the administration, oppose to a bipartisan TRIA bill that has been carefully negotiated puts the future of TRIA in doubt," the aide said.
House leaders are aiming to release the omnibus spending bill by Tuesday evening, so the House can vote Thursday and let the Senate get to work. Clearing both chambers so quickly will require a rare dose of bipartisanship; the House vote, in particular, could be tricky as Republican leaders look to attract Democratic votes to offset the expected opposition of some conservatives.
After months of negotiations, congressional appropriators have done all they can to forge an agreement on the spending bill, leaving the final details to leadership as they seek to piece together a package that can earn sufficient bipartisan support in both chambers. For the most part, appropriators have navigated hundreds of policy amendments sought by members and come to an agreement both parties can stomach.
Appropriators have designed an 11-part omnibus and a short-term spending bill for the Homeland Security Department, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said Monday evening.
Yet, in the final week, a few other policy issues have brought the process to a slow crawl. Disagreements over a pension measure and changes to the Dodd-Frank law could not be settled by the committee, leaving leaders Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi to wrap up the discussions.
Mikulski and other members of the Senate committee said they were unsure whether Congress would make its deadline to fund the government by midnight on Thursday or need to pass a one- or two-day continuing resolution to extend the timeline. The Senate could take up and pass the spending bill shortly after it leaves the House, but only if all senators agree. It was unclear Tuesday morning if Sen. Ted Cruz and others who have expressed disappointment in the bill would push for additional debate time, forcing a continuing resolution and sending the Senate home later than planned. Senators could push debate over the bill well into next week.
On TRIA, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, agreed late Monday on the particulars of a TRIA reauthorization itself, in a deal to extend the program for another six years. The deal would raise the threshold at which point federal cost-sharing for insurance kicks in for damages from a terrorist strike to $200 million
Initially enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the program is set to expire at the end of the year. It has had a $100 million threshold for when federal help would kick in. Business groups, property owners and other groups have been urging Congress not to allow a lapse they say would undermine construction projects and increase the difficulty in acquiring the needed insurance.
The House Republican Conference is slated to meet Wednesday morning, and GOP leaders hope to have the legislation ready by then so the conference can discuss it.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday he is not happy about the short-term DHS funding in the bill, and he expressed some concern about loading the bill with extraneous measures, such as the pension bill or policy riders. But he signaled that he knows Republicans are counting on Democrats to provide at least some votes to pass the omnibus.
"The cleaner this bill is, the more likelihood there is of its passage," he said.