What to watch for in Congress’s big spending bill

What to watch for in Congress’s big spending bill
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Lawmakers are moving this month to pass a massive spending bill that would fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, sparking a rush of lobbying activity.

The legislation, known as an omnibus, must pass by March 23 to avoid a government shutdown — and it could well be the last major bill to pass Congress before the midterm elections. That’s led Washington insiders to dub the bill the “last train leaving the station.”


Congressional leaders have long negotiated the addition of “policy riders” to omnibus bills, in part because it is a way to win approval for proposals that might not pass as stand-alone legislation.

Here are some of the major proposals that could be included in this year’s bill.
The biggest outstanding question for the spending bill is whether it will contain a fix for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE is ending.

Lawmakers have clashed for weeks over what to do about DACA recipients, many of whom have been working, attending school and serving in the military without fear of deportation.

A push to pass an immigration bill faltered in the Senate last month as a series of proposals went down to defeat on the floor, including a plan backed by the White House that would have paired the DACA fix with border security funding and cuts to legal immigration.

Senators are now looking for a fallback plan, including a temporary extension of DACA that would push the issue past the elections. But whether such a proposal would pass Congress or pass muster with Trump remains to be seen.

Another major issue that could be dealt with in the funding bill is payments for ObamaCare.

Republican leaders are looking for a way to stabilize ObamaCare’s health insurance markets, at least in the short term, by restoring funding canceled by the White House.

GOP Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderFinding a path forward to end surprise medical billing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care MORE (Tenn.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report MORE (Maine) and Democratic Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayFinding a path forward to end surprise medical billing Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Sanders mounts staunch defense of 'Medicare for All' | Biden, Sanders fight over health care heats up | House votes to repeal ObamaCare 'Cadillac Tax' | Dems want details on fetal tissue research ban MORE (Wash.) are pushing two separate proposals aimed at lowering premiums.

One of the bills would provide two years of government subsidies for insurance companies who treat low-income patients. Collins’s proposal, meanwhile, would create high-risk insurance pools for those with high medical costs.

Lawmakers who are negotiating some combination of the two bills say they’re hopeful that it could be part of the spending package that needs to be completed this month.

House Republican leaders are reportedly eyeing a complicated budget maneuver that would make the ObamaCare payments — known as cost-sharing reductions and reinsurance — without adding extra cost to the omnibus.

That move could make passage of the payments easier, though it would also risk a revolt on the right.

Medicare Part D
Pharmaceutical companies were caught by surprise when the budget deal that passed last month included a provision requiring drug companies cover a larger portion of the “doughnut hole,” a gap in drug coverage for Medicare Part D beneficiaries.

The provision requires drug companies to pick up 70 percent of the cost of prescriptions in the doughnut hole, up from the 50 percent they previously were required to cover.

Lobbyists for the drug industry are now working furiously to try and get the rule changed in the omnibus, in hopes that the share of the costs borne by the industry can be lowered.

“Every percentage point counts,” one lobbyist familiar with the issue told The Hill last month.

Campaign finance
Evangelical leaders have been clamoring under Trump for action to roll back the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other nonprofits from donating and promoting political campaigns.

But a large swath of the nonprofit community opposes rolling back the Johnson Amendment, as do many religious groups.

Lawmakers in favor of easing the Johnson Amendment say it infringes on the free speech of religious groups, while opponents say it essentially makes the donations tax deductible.

House Republicans included a provision rolling back the amendment in their version of tax legislation last year, but the Senate parliamentarian struck it out, ruling it wasn’t relevant to the budget.
Waters of the United States rule
House Republicans have for years sought to repeal or change a 2015 rule from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), known as Waters of the United States, that puts rivers, lakes and marshes under the purview of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Republicans tried to attach a policy rider on the rule to a spending bill in 2015, but Democrats refused to allow it.

GOP lawmakers have derided the regulations as an undue power grab by the government, and the EPA under Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA halts surprise inspections of power, chemical plants | Regulators decline to ban pesticide linked to brain damage | NY awards country's largest offshore wind energy contracts EPA allows continued use of pesticide linked with brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade MORE has taken steps to replace it.

Still, it’s possible that a new provision related to the regulation could make it into the omnibus.
Endangered Species Act
The House in spending legislation sought to downsize the Endangered Species Act, including eliminating federal protection of animals such as the sage grouse and the gray wolf.

While those proposals didn’t pass the Senate, opponents of the changes fear they could reemerge in the spending bill.

Republicans argue that the federal program is overbearing and maintains protections for animals long after they are needed. Democrats and environmental groups counter that the protections are needed to prevent species from again reaching the brink of extinction.

Another policy rider that could be in the mix would invalidate an Interior Department rule that protected bears and other carnivores in Alaska and ban the National Park Service from taking action against several controversial hunting techniques, like shooting animals in their dens.
Joint employer
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) officially reinstated an Obama-era definition of what it means to be a “joint employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, much to the chagrin of corporations.

The definition holds that a worker can hold a parent company liable for the actions of its franchisees or other companies that contract with it. Republicans argue that the rule is federal overreach, and legislation to revert the joint employer standard to the pre-2015 decision passed the House last November with eight votes from Democrats.

There are other matters relating to the joint employer standard that are pending before the NLRB, and there is heavy pressure from business groups to roll back the definition.
Tax law
Republicans who authored the tax-cut legislation enacted in December are scrambling to change an aspect of the bill that has major unintended consequences for the agriculture industry.

The last-minute addition to the tax law states that cooperatives will be treated like pass-through businesses whose earnings are taxed as ordinary income. The provision was included so that farmers could receive a large tax write-off for selling to grain co-ops.

But it turns out that the provision, in practice, disincentives farmers from selling not only to large agricultural companies like Cargill, but also independent family-owned businesses not structured under co-ops.

Lawmakers hailing from farm states, including Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyScandal in Puerto Rico threatens chance at statehood Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Democrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection MORE (R-Iowa) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP rattled by Trump rally GOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator MORE (R-S.D.), have led the charge to revise the provision, but whether they will succeed remains to be seen.
Peter Sullivan contributed.