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Congress expected to pass bipartisan budget deal, but divisions remain

Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Congress was on track to approve an ambitious bipartisan budget deal Thursday, averting a feared midnight government shutdown but also exposing deep divisions in both parties over immigration, deficit spending and how best to prepare for upcoming midterm election.

The Senate was set to vote first. A coalition of Republicans and Democrats was expected to provide momentum for passage later in the House.

"I am confident that no senator on either side of the aisle believes this is a perfect bill," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ahead of voting. "But I'm also confident this is our best chance to begin rebuilding our military and make progress on issues directly affecting the American people."

Compromise often brings the parties together in partners-in-arms strategy to accomplish a common goal -- in this case, to avoid the cycle of shutdown threats and temporary measures, including one needed Thursday to keep government running.

But this deal brought opposition from almost all sides, particularly in the House, where lawmakers often stake more partisan positions. Conservative Republicans protested deficit spending and Democrats decried the lack of action to protect the young immigrants from deportation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Democrats to oppose the package, even though she had a hand in crafting it, while allies of Speaker Paul D. Ryan all but pleaded with his majority to deliver the votes needed for passage.

Only in the Senate, whose leaders negotiated the deal, did a sense of accomplishment emerge over a bill that enables Congress to move beyond the fiscal fights to other issues -- and the campaign trail -- and assert legislative branch's ability to function despite Trump's often shifting views.

"Often times we can get a lot more done working with one another and let the White House just sit on the sidelines," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

The spending package could become a defining moment ahead of the midterm election when control of the House, and the narrow balance of power in the Senate, are at stake.

Outside groups intensified the pressure, storming offices and jamming phone lines, warning lawmakers their votes would be logged and remembered.

"Anyone who votes for the Senate budget deal is colluding with this president and this administration to deport Dreamers," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate for immigrants. "It is as simple as that."

Dreamers continued to risk arrest across the Capitol complex as they tried to meet with lawmakers, often occupying their offices, to share their stories.

"We're in @NancyPelosi's office today to share our stories and make sure all House Dems keep their promise and vote no on any spending deal that does not include #DreamActNow," tweeted Bruna Bouhid of United We Dream, posting a photo with dozens of other immigration advocates in the leader's office.

At the same time, the conservative House Freedom Caucus announced it would reject the package, reasoning that $300 billion in new spending "adds to the swamp instead of draining it."

Annual federal deficits are expected to rise to $800 billion in 2018, levels not seen for several years.

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"This is not what the American people sent us here to do," the Freedom Caucus said in a statement.

Conservative groups in the network sponsored by the influential Koch brothers, whose money is crucial in elections, called the spending package -- and its extension of specialty tax breaks for race tracks and Hollywood filming -- "a betrayal of American taxpayers and a display of the absolute unwillingness of members of Congress to adhere to any sort of responsible budgeting behavior."

"This proposal is a massive failure," wrote Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners and others.

But for many lawmakers, the political fatigue of the budget battles – resulting in five temporary spending bills this fiscal year -- and the sprinkling of federal dollars across so many vital government functions was enough to bring their votes.

The package boosts both military and domestic spending by nearly $300 billion for two years, and provides an additional $90 million in disaster aid for coastal and Western states hit hard by last year's hurricanes and wildfires.

More money will be available to fight the opioid epidemic, fund National Institutes of Health research, staff Community Health Centers and renovate Veterans Affairs hospitals. Roads, bridges and rural broadband will see $20 billion in new infrastructure spending.

Conservative Democrats in both the House and Senate have also appeared wary of tying themselves to a prolonged standoff over immigration, which is being led by more liberal and progressive elements of the party. The push for protections for Dreamers led to the brief government shutdown last month.

Pelosi continued trying to leverage Democratic votes to push Ryan for a commitment that he would bring immigration forward to debate, as McConnell has promised to do next week in the Senate.

Ryan inched closer to that commitment Thursday, saying immigration would be the "next big priority" in the House.

"To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not," Ryan said, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump is ending March 5. A court case is allowing it to continue temporarily.

"Please know that we are committed to getting this done."

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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