Democrats, GOP make final effort to pass tax bill, stave off government shutdown

The House and Senate have begun final negotiations on a $1 trillion omnibus.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said talks are under way and that “things are looking up.”

Rogers said he is hopeful that Senate appropriators will be allowed to sign the conference report soon.

"We're optimistic that the senators will sign the conference report and we'll get things concluded," Rogers said. 

"Things are looking up and I am looking up," he added, putting his hands together as if in prayer.

The House unveiled the omnibus legislation Wednesday night, though Democrats hadn’t signed off on the agreement. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday signaled the sides were edging closer to a deal.

Unless Congress approves an omnibus or a short-term measure to fund the government before Saturday, most of the government will shut down this weekend. The departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development would not be affected since their appropriations bills were already approved.

The omnibus has been a bargaining chip in a separate fight over extending the payroll tax cut extension. Both sides have been looking for leverage in that fight, as neither side wants to be blamed for a failure to extend the tax cut.

It remains unclear whether the House and Senate will be able to resolve their differences and complete work on both the payroll tax measure and the omnibus before the end of the year. Members in both chambers are hoping to leave Washington by Friday, but it remains possible lawmakers will work through the weekend and into next week to finish up the two measures. 

Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, a senior Democratic appropriator, played down the chances of the government partially shutting down at Friday’s end.

But he also called the whole showdown over the omnibus spending bill an “indictment of the legislative process.”

“I’m embarrassed that it happened, but I think the chances of a shutdown are zero,” said Moran, whose Northern Virginia district contains many federal workers.

Moran said it was his “hope and expectation” that lawmakers would sign off on the conference report for the omnibus package on Thursday, and that the legislation would receive a floor vote on Friday.

The Virginia Democrat also chided the Obama administration for pushing to link the government spending measure with the extension of the payroll tax cut, in an attempt to gain more leverage over congressional Republicans.

“Some folks have communicated to the White House that they should not be using federal employees as pawns in a larger issue, that if we have an an omnibus appropriations bill that can, and should, and will eventually be enacted, we should do it now and not hold it up,” Moran said.

Rogers did not specify which provisions of the omnibus bill would be reopened, but Republicans have said they are willing to negotiate over language limiting travel by Cuban-Americans to Cuba. 

A senior Democratic appropriator, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), pointed to a dispute over travel restrictions to Cuba as the last sticking point, voicing amazement that the communist island still divided Congress. “Technically we’ve got one issue holding up the package, and it’s Cuba again, 52 years later,” Serrano told reporters.

He said House and Senate negotiators had agreed to eliminate a provision reinstating a longstanding travel ban loosened by President Obama, but that Boehner’s office intervened. “The Speaker has made it a priority,” Serrano said.

He said that the change could have immediate effects because the Treasury Department estimates that 300,000 Cuban Americans travel to Cuba over the holidays and those already in Cuba could be in violation of the law if it passes.

“Lets say the bill gets approved tomorrow and the president signs it Saturday morning: Saturday morning, folks who left and are in Cuba already are in violation of federal law. Nobody thought about this,” Serrano said. “The charter company that flew them to Cuba technically couldn’t go and pick them up, because they would be in violation of federal law.”

Serrano said that he wants assurances the president would waive the provision if a waiver was inserted into the rider.

“The most amazing thing is that Cuba is still a congressional issue 52 years later,” he said.

Prior to Thursday, Democrats had said there were just five issues remaining on the omnibus: the prohibition on Cuba travel, a prohibition on light bulbs standards, a prohibition on D.C-funded abortion, a provision allowing the military to treat coal as an alternative fuel and a desire by the White House to tack on increased funding for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission which had its funding cut in the minibus passed last month.

— This story was posted at 2:20 p.m. and was last updated at 3:52 p.m.

Russell Berman and Bernie Becker contributed to this story.