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Apr 25, 2017

Keeping the Government Open, and Obamacare Funded, or Not: A Busy Week

Members of Congress returned from a two-week recess Monday to face a major deadline: passing a bill to fund the government by Friday, April 28th.  After hearing from constituents back home on health care and other issues, or not hearing from them if Members chose not to hold town hall meetings, they have to pass an appropriations bill to fund all the federal agencies through September 30 or trigger a government shutdown.  Last November this bill was punted until April, rather than passing it then as usually happens, so that the new Administration could weigh in with its priorities for the agencies.  The bill will fund school counseling programs, veterans programs, drug and alcohol treatment, and everything else the government does. 

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have been working out the details for weeks without much weighing in from the White House until recently, when the President’s budget called for increases in defense spending, border security, and money to begin building the wall across the Mexican border.  These would have to be paid for in part by $15 billion in cuts to domestic programs, which are difficult to make so late in the negotiations without losing Democratic votes. 

Democrats are in the minority in the House and Senate but they have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster most bills, so their priorities have to be addressed.  Cutting domestic programs and building a border wall are not among their priorities. 

The coincidental timing of the April 28th deadline with the 100th day of the new Presidency has caused unexpected complications.  The White House would like to show that it is keeping promises and getting things done for the inevitable 100th day report cards in the media.  Getting money approved for the wall would help.  Senate Democrats say that the President’s plan has been for Mexico to pay for the wall, not the taxpayers, and they won’t support a spending bill with money for the wall. 

The two big questions then are, “Would the Democrats filibuster a spending bill with money for the wall in it, and would the President veto a bill that doesn’t have that money?”  A government shutdown would result from a “Yes” to either question.  Not what the White House wants on the 100th day.  Democrats have learned from watching Republicans that there is really no political price to pay for shutting down the government.  Republicans have done just fine since the shutdown in 2013.  So Democrats are likely to stand firm on their demands. 

Spending for the wall is not the only spending issue left to be resolved but it has become a very high profile one.  Congress could give itself another week to wrap up the spending bill.  One benefit would be that the 100 day deadline would pass without an official win or loss for the President on the wall, and spending decisions would become a little less politically charged. 

Another high profile issue is the Democrats’ priority of including $7 billion to keep Obamacare afloat.  This money goes to insurance companies to compensate them for money they are losing on expensive patients.  Without it the insurers will become more likely to drop out of the program.  

Some Republicans think keeping Obamacare going until a replacement can be passed into law and implemented is the responsible thing to do.  Others are ok with encouraging Obamacare's demise by defunding parts of it when there is an opportunity.  At one point funding for the wall was tied to funding for the Affordable Care Act.  This is another issue where Senate Democrats may be willing to force a shutdown.  We will find out by Friday, unless it’s next Friday.  And then Congress can immediately begin the process of writing the spending bills for Fiscal Year 2018, technically due by October first.  They are only three months behind on that.  
UPDATE: It now appears that funding for the wall has been dropped, that the Administration has agreed to keep funding the $7 billion in Obamacare subsidies, and that other issues will probably all be worked out, thus averting a shutdown. Congress has given itself another week to finalize the bill.  

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