Five hurdles to avoiding a government shutdown
© Greg Nash

Congress is scrambling to avoid political landmines as lawmakers face a tight timeline to avoid a government shutdown later this month.

With two weeks until the April 28 funding deadline, lawmakers are locked in negotiations over a funding bill that would likely last until the end of September.

Eager to show they can govern, Republican leaders are pledging they’ll meet the deadline and avoid a short-term funding bill, but the talks face last-minute hurdles.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerLawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure Dems tout failure of GOP healthcare bill MORE (D-N.Y.) is warning the White House to stay on the sidelines of the talks, pledging that Democrats will oppose any bill that includes “poison pill” riders.

But Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, says lawmakers need to include Trump’s priorities if they want the president to sign spending bills. 

Here are five hurdles that could stand in the way of keeping the government open.

ObamaCare payments 

President Trump’s threat to withhold ObamaCare insurance payments is throwing an eleventh-hour wrench into the negotiations.

The president floated the idea during an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, saying, “what I think should happen — and will happen — is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”

The payments, known as cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), reimburse insurers for giving discounted deductibles to low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Insurers are warning that uncertainty about the future of the payments could force them to increase premiums or withdraw from the ObamaCare market altogether.

Democrats have blasted the president’s threat, arguing he is trying to hold healthcare hostage.

“His most recent threat… amounts to nothing more than political blackmail,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said on Thursday.

Democratic leadership are now demanding that Trump promise to make the ObamaCare payments before they support a government funding bill 

“The President’s comments on stopping the Cost Sharing Reduction payments will increase costs, is a threat to the good health of the American people and a threat to keeping government open,” said an aide for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Sanctuary cities

A fight over immigration looms large over the funding negotiations.

Mulvaney told the Wall Street Journal that Trump wants a provision included in the funding bill allowing states to restrict federal grant money for cities that don’t follow immigration laws. 

Trump signed an executive order earlier this year defunding so-called “sanctuary cities,” but that order is now tied up in court.

Asked about the “hard line” he is urging lawmakers to take, Mulvaney argued allowing cities to not follow the law “was just not an option.”

“I am absolutely stunned that local towns, counties, cities ... think that they can flout federal law and not pay a penalty. That just doesn’t make sense to ordinary people, and it certainly doesn’t make sense to this administration,” Mulvaney told the Mike Gallagher show. 

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) didn’t respond to a request for comment on Mulvaney’s pitch to lawmakers.

But using the funding bill punish sanctuary cities could cause a big fight in the Senate, where Democrats blocked similar legislation last year.

Border security

GOP leaders had signaled they were preparing to leave a key Trump priority —money to pay for a southern border wall — out of the bill in order to avoid a shutdown.

“My guess is that comes together better without the supplemental,” Sen. Roy BluntRoy BluntOvernight Healthcare: Trump plays hardball on ObamaCare | Senators revive negotiations | CBO says repeal without replace would cost 32M insurance White House working with moderates on new Medicaid proposal Senate GOP revives negotiation over ObamaCare repeal and replace MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters late last month, asked about the wall funding.

But Mulvaney has said during a string of interviews this week that the president wants to see additional border security funding included in the bill, warning that “elections have consequences.”

“If they ignore [the president’s goals] completely then they have to face the fact that the president has to sign spending bills” he told a North Carolina radio station. “The president has to sign off on this stuff, so the president gets to have his say.“

The Trump administration has submitted an $30 billion supplemental bill to Congress that includes $1.5 billion for the wall, and Mulvaney told The Wall Street Journal that roughly $1.5 billion for the wall is one the administration’s top priorities for the talks.

GOP leadership has sidestepped when pressed if Congress will ultimately pay for Trump’s proposal.

McConnell told reporters in Kentucky on Tuesday that he backs including border security but “exactly how that’s defined will be subject to negotiation with our Democratic colleagues.” 

But Democrats have pledged to oppose any bill that includes the border wall funding, warning in a letter to McConnell that Republicans “will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy.” 

Miners healthcare and pensions

Rust-belt lawmakers are turning their attention to the end-of-the-month shutdown deadline as part of their latest push to get a “permanent” fix on the healthcare and pensions for miners and their families. 

“We’re doing everything humanly possible,” Manchin told The Hill before lawmakers left for the Easter recess. “I’ve been working through Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerLawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure Dems tout failure of GOP healthcare bill MORE … and that’s the highest priority we have with our caucus.”

A spokesman for Manchin said that currently only healthcare was likely to be included in the government funding bill but the West Virginia senator would “fight” for the pension provision.

“It is absolutely ridiculous for us to be held up by our colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” Manchin said at a press conference earlier this month. “It’s ridiculous because in a year to two years we’re going to be in the same boat with the pensions.”

Asked about the prospects for the government funding bill, Manchin added that lawmakers were “pushing for a full fix as we speak.”

But some Republicans have been loath to include the pension fix in a government funding bill, arguing the miners pensions was an agreement between a union and miners but not the federal government.

Defense money 

A long running fight over defense spending is expected to come to a head with the government funding deadline looming.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Trump gets briefing at Pentagon on ISIS, Afghanistan | Senate panel approves five defense picks | Senators want Syria study in defense bill Schwarzenegger tweets to McCain: 'You'll be back' Trump called McCain to wish him well after cancer diagnosis MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham and Kushner met to discuss immigration differences: report Overnight Energy: Exxon sues feds over M sanctions fine Senate panel rejects Trump funding cuts on Energy Department programs MORE (R-S.C.), two of Congress’s most vocal defense hawks, are warning they will vote against any short-term deal because of its impact on the Pentagon.

“I will vote against it. I will filibuster against it. I will lay down on the floor of the Senate against it,” McCain told reporters.

Graham separately added that he would also oppose a continuing resolution (CR) “because it destroys the Pentagon,” unless it’s a one-week stopgap to let lawmakers finalize a yearlong deal.

The Pentagon has warned lawmakers against passing a continuing resolution for funding because it would limit their ability to launch new programs, including new military equipment, and could hamstring their ability to move around war funding.

Republicans and the Trump administration want to boost military spending, arguing the Pentagon’s capabilities have been undercut after years of budget cuts.

But the move likely run into a wall in the Senate, where Democrats are demanding an equal increase in non-defense spending.

Pressed if he would be okay with the Trump administration's supplemental request moving separately from the funding bill, McCain demurred, but added: "$30 billion for defense is just the beginning of what we need."