Five things to watch as Congress braces for end-of-the-year shutdown fight 

Greg Nash

Congress is barreling toward a deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown.

Negotiators say they don’t want to kick the funding fight to next year, but lawmakers will have just 10 scheduled work days to strike a deal by the Dec. 7 deadline.

Significant political clashes are shadowing the funding battle.

Republicans are losing power in the House and want to finish the bill while they have the majority.

{monads}House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is locked in a battle for the Speakership, which could make it tougher for her to compromise.

Here are five areas to watch.

Border wall

The fight over Trump’s signature issue is the biggest threat to government funding.

The House’s homeland security bill would provide $5 billion for the border including funding for technology and new fencing, compared with $1.6 billion in the Senate’s version of the legislation — the same amount the administration got for the 2018 fiscal year. 

Senate Republicans are hoping they can negotiate a boost for the administration. But they are also managing expectations.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he told Trump during a recent meeting that he wanted to fund the government. He said he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) want to avoid a shutdown and Trump “seemed” to agree with them.

But they’ve yet to settle on a figure with Democrats. Shelby said Republicans didn’t discuss numbers with Trump and predicted negotiating would begin in earnest after the Thanksgiving recess.

Democrats, while stressing they support border security, have appeared skeptical of budging on border money without securing a larger immigration deal. And Pelosi said last month that she didn’t “see any of us” voting for funding for the wall.

Trump has made hard-line immigration rhetoric, including a pledge to build a border wall, a key part of his political brand.

And he’s refused to take the shutdown threat off the table, saying days after his meeting with GOP leaders that it’s a “good time” for a shutdown if he doesn’t get wall funding.

Mueller investigation

Trump’s decision to remove Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with Sesssions’s former chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, who is skeptical of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, has added an explosive element to the talks.

Democrats say Trump is laying the groundwork to interfere in Mueller’s probe, and want the funding bill to include language stating that only a senior Senate-confirmed Justice Department official could fire Mueller. They also want to give Mueller an expedited recourse to challenge a firing in the courts.

“We Democrats, House and Senate, will attempt to add to must-pass legislation, in this case the spending bill, legislation that would prevent Mr. Whitaker from interfering with the Mueller investigation,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democratic leader.

There is growing support for legislation to protect Mueller in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is opposing Trump’s judicial picks until the legislation gets a vote, and he supports adding the Mueller protection language to the government funding bill.

But House and Senate GOP leaders have dismissed the bill. McConnell said Mueller’s probe should be allowed to continue but that he didn’t believe the legislation is needed because the investigation is “in no danger.”

Disaster funding

Congress is grappling with how to respond to wildfires that have devastated California and killed nearly 80 people.

The state is expected to ask for federal assistance and its delegation is stacked with powerful members.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Senate leaders asking that Californians impacted by the wildfires be eligible for “any disaster funding or tax relief provided in upcoming appropriations legislation.”

Congress passed more than $90 billion in response to national disasters, including a string of hurricanes, earlier this year. More than $15 billion remained in the pool at the end of October, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Feinstein and Harris said they expected the money in federal disaster accounts would be “sufficient” for the state’s immediate recovery needs. Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters that he also wants to include between $715 million to $720 million in disaster funding for California in the Dec. 7 spending bill.

Trump has repeatedly criticized the state, even as wildfires continued to burn, saying forest mismanagement is to blame for the fire and threatening, earlier this month, to cut off federal support — something lawmakers predict he wouldn’t actually do.

Sexual harassment

Lawmakers also are trying to get a deal across the finish line to reform how Congress handles sexual harassment claims.

The House and Senate have passed separate bills overhauling their own sexual harassment policies. But there are significant differences between the two proposals, including what types of settlements members are personally liable for, the role of the chambers’ Ethics Committees and if the Senate bill’s definition of harassment is too narrow.

McConnell and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, talked “at length,” according to McConnell, about how to resolve the issue by the end of the year

Klobuchar said that she and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Rules Committee, are willing to sit down with the House to get an agreement.

Klobuchar added that she talked with McConnell about attaching a sexual harassment deal to a “larger bill.” That could end up being the spending bill.

Foreign aid

The funding fight comes as Trump has threatened to cut off aid to several countries.

In late October, Trump said he would “begin cutting off” aid to three Central American countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — in retaliation for a migrant caravan making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But topline spending is set by lawmakers and the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, which includes funding for foreign aid, is one of the seven spending bills that Congress still needs to pass by Dec. 7.

The president has repeatedly called for steep cuts to aid programs and the State Department. Those requests have been rejected by lawmakers.

Flake warned after the president’s remarks that cutting aid to the countries would likely backfire on the United States.

“One thing the president has talked about is cutting foreign aid to those countries. We have very little foreign aid going, and that aid that we do have helps them with law enforcement, drug interdiction and programs to help that population stay there. And cutting those programs indiscriminately, those benefit us as well,” he said at a CNN event last month.


Tags Amy Klobuchar Border wall Budget Charles Schumer Dianne Feinstein Immigration Jeff Flake Jeff Sessions Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby Robert Mueller Roy Blunt Sexual harassment
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