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Spending Bill Talks Drag On            03/21 06:22

   Talks over a $1.3 trillion government spending bill drag on as congressional 
negotiators find themselves tangled in side issues ahead of a Friday deadline.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Talks over a $1.3 trillion government spending bill drag 
on as congressional negotiators find themselves tangled in side issues ahead of 
a Friday deadline.

   If lawmakers can agree on the bill, President Donald Trump will reap a huge 
budget increase for the military while Democrats will cement wins on 
infrastructure and other domestic programs that they failed to get under 
President Barack Obama.

   First, though, Congress needs to vote. Leaders already missed Monday's 
deadline to file legislation and progress slowed as negotiators struggled to 
resolve several sticking points.

   Most battles over budget priorities in the huge bill were essentially 
settled, but a scaled-back plan for Trump's border wall and a fight over a 
tunnel under the Hudson River still held up a final agreement.

   Republican leaders had been hopeful a deal could be announced Tuesday 
evening, allowing for votes in the House and Senate this week. If a bill --- or 
at least a stopgap measure to keep operations running --- doesn't pass Congress 
by midnight Friday, the government will shut down for a third time this year.

   The measure on the table would provide major funding increases for the 
Pentagon --- $80 billion over current limits --- bringing the military budget 
to $700 billion and giving GOP defense hawks a long-sought victory.

   "We made a promise to the country that we would rebuild our military. Aging 
equipment, personnel shortages, training lapses, maintenance lapses --- all of 
this has cost us," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "With this week's 
critical funding bill we will begin to reverse that damage."

   Domestic accounts would get a generous 10 percent increase on average as 
well, awarding Democrats the sort of spending increases they sought but never 
secured during the Obama administration.

   Democrats touted billions to fight the nation's opioid addiction epidemic. 
More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for 
training, security measures and treatment for the mentally ill. Medical 
research at the National Institutes of Health, a longstanding bipartisan 
priority, would receive a record $3 billion increase to $37 billion.

   "We have worked to restore and in many cases increase investments in 
education, health care, opioids, NIH, child care, college affordability and 
other domestic and military priorities," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key 
negotiator of the measure.

   Agencies historically unpopular with Republicans, such as the IRS, appear 
likely to get increases too, in part to prepare for implementation of the 
Republicans' recently passed tax measure. The Environmental Protection Agency, 
always a GOP target, may get a reprieve this year.

   Lawmakers agreed on the broad outlines of the budget plan last month, after 
a standoff forced an overnight shutdown. The legislation implementing that deal 
is viewed as possibly one of few bills moving through Congress this year, 
making it a target for lawmakers and lobbyists seeking to attach their top 

   But efforts to add on unrelated legislation to tackle politically charged 
issues, such as immigration and rapidly rising health insurance premiums, 
appeared to be faltering.

   An effort to extend protections for so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to 
the country as children appears to have failed. Democrats seemed likely to 
yield on $1.6 billion in wall funding, as outlined in Trump's official request 
for the 2018 budget year, but they were digging in against Trump's plans to 
hire hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration enforcement agents.

   A dispute over abortion seemed likely to scuttle a Senate GOP plan to 
provide billions in federal subsidies to insurers to help curb health insurance 
premium increases.

   Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was working on Trump's behalf against funding 
for a Hudson River tunnel and rail project that's important to Senate Minority 
Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Republicans from New York and New Jersey.

   The bill would add $143 billion over limits set under a 2011 budget and debt 
pact that forced automatic budget cuts on annual agency appropriations. Coupled 
with last year's tax cuts, it heralds the return of trillion-dollar budget 
deficits as soon as the budget year starting in October.

   Republican conservatives are dismayed by the free-spending measure, meaning 
Democratic votes are required to pass it. That gave Democrats leverage to force 
GOP negotiators to drop numerous policy riders that Democrats considered poison 

   Ryan said negotiations are ongoing about adding a widely backed measure that 
aims to strengthen federal background checks by prodding states to provide all 
records that disqualify people with severe mental health problems and other 
issues from buying firearms.

   Republicans continued to press to fix a glitch in the recent tax bill that 
subsidizes grain sales to cooperatives at the expense of for-profit grain 
companies, lawmakers said.

   "We need to fix that problem," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, 
R-Calif. Schumer was demanding a provision of his own, tax subsidies to 
construct low-income housing, in exchange, lawmakers said.

   The president, meanwhile, has privately threatened to veto the whole package 
if a $900 million payment is made on the Hudson River Gateway Project, a 
priority for Schumer. Trump's opposition is alarming Northeastern Republicans 
such as Rep. Peter King of New York, who lobbied Trump on the project at a St. 
Patrick's luncheon in the Capitol last week.

   The Gateway Project would add an $11 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson 
River to complement deteriorating, century-old tunnels that are at risk of 
closing in a few years. The project enjoys bipartisan support among key 
Appropriations panel negotiators on the omnibus measure who want to get the 
expensive project on track while their coffers are flush with money.

   "I think we ought to get it done and it has good bipartisan support," 
Schumer said. "I'm not going to get into a back and forth with the president. 
This is a needed project, and I hope Congress rises to the occasion."


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