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Congressional leaders feud over abortion rights and healthcare, putting spending bill at risk

Congressional leaders feud over abortion rights and healthcare, putting spending bill at risk
Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), shown in an earlier meeting, fought this week over the fate of a measure meant to prop up the Affordable Care Act. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Congressional negotiators laboring to write a trillion-dollar plan to fund the federal government are caught up in last-minute partisan disputes over abortion rights, healthcare costs and the fate of a Northeastern railway tunnel that President Trump has sought to derail.

House and Senate leaders must agree on a package before Friday's deadline to avert another government shutdown, which would be the third this year.

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On Monday, when the spending plan was scheduled for release, negotiators expressed confidence that they would meet the deadline. But some leaders raised the possibility late Tuesday that another short-term spending bill might be needed to keep the federal government running.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) acknowledged disagreement on some key points. "There are some unresolved issues," he said. "We're working through them as we speak."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted the measure would be approved by week's end, although he did not contradict a deputy's assertion that action could be delayed until Saturday.

"We're going to do it this week," he said. "As long as that takes, that's the time we'll put in to get there."

In February, leaders announced a two-year budget deal that added tens of billions of dollars to both defense and non-defense spending. That agreement called for new spending levels to begin on March 23 — if the House and Senate approved an appropriations bill.

The complications stem in large part from the fractured Republican majorities in Congress. Because they are not expected to vote unanimously, due to disputes over policy and spending levels in the mammoth bill, Republicans must seek Democratic votes to ensure passage.

Not surprisingly, Democrats were optimistic about the package as negotiating wore on. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York heralded the measure as one that "robustly" funded the military and provided "substantial investments" to benefit middle-class Americans.

"Not everyone is going to be happy; that's the nature of a compromise," he said. "But I believe in the end it will be a fair compromise."

One of the disputes raging Tuesday centered on a move Democrats saw as Trump's effort to punish Schumer.

Weeks ago, Trump ordered Republicans to omit federal funding for the proposed Gateway Program railway tunnel between New Jersey and New York. Advocates from both parties consider a new Hudson River crossing crucial since existing tunnels and bridges are aging.

Under a deal made during the Obama administration, state and local agencies would pay half the estimated $30-billion cost of the project. Trump administration officials say no deal exists and have demanded a higher buy-in from local governments.

Schumer called Gateway one of the most important infrastructure projects on the Eastern Seaboard.

If the old tunnels fail, he said Tuesday, "we'll have not just a recession in the Northeast but a national recession.… This is a needed project, and I hope Congress rises to the occasion."

Another heated dispute centered on what had been a bipartisan effort, led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to bolster the Affordable Care Act health insurance markets by infusing billions of federal dollars into the system.

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The money would help pay for insurance for poor Americans and those requiring expensive care. Democrats said they were shocked Monday to find out that Alexander had approved restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions that would, they said, make it impossible for women to purchase abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act, even with their own money.

Those restrictions were not in an Alexander-Murray measure released in 2017, they said. The new wording also expanded the ability of insurance companies to sell policies with limited coverage, Democrats said.

"I am disappointed that Republicans are pushing a partisan bill that includes an unacceptable last-minute attack on women's health on what should be bipartisan work to lower healthcare costs," Murray said.

Alexander contended that the measure simply invoked the Hyde Amendment, the 42-year-old rule that bars use of federal funds to pay for abortions. He also threatened to use the issue against Democrats this fall.

"If you are running for U.S. Senate or U.S. House in November, do you really want to stand up and say, 'I'm going to vote not to lower insurance rates by 40%?'" he said.

But Republicans were split as well, with some reluctant to vote for anything that extended Obamacare. House negotiators were expected to strip the measure from the bill.

Also up in the air were immigration measures, including a solution to the fate of young immigrants who have lived in the country illegally since they were children. Trump terminated the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, though federal courts have kept it in place for now.

Trump has refused to support multiple attempts in Congress to protect young DACA recipients, known as "Dreamers," from deportation unless the measure also dramatically reduces legal immigration. He also has insisted that any protection be tied to funding for the wall he has pledged to build along the southern border.

"The Republicans are totally in favor of doing something substantial for DACA, but the Democrats like it as a campaign issue, so they don't get it approved," Trump argued Monday in New Hampshire.

On Tuesday, lawmakers failed to come up with immigration measures that could win approval from Democrats, divided Republicans and the president, and chances for negotiating a deal appeared slim.

Another measure under fire was a long-fought effort to force government agencies to supply information to the background checks system used to guard against gun purchases by people who should be disqualified from ownership, an issue that regained attention after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Florida.

The House last year passed a measure that bolstered the system but teamed it with regulations allowing concealed guns to be carried across state lines, which Democrats opposed. A separate version without the concealed-guns component has been caught in the Senate over objections by both Republicans and Democrats.

Asked if stiffer background checks would be included in the spending bill, Ryan said, "That's something we're discussing with our friends on the other side of the aisle."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and for clarity.

9:05 a.m.: The article was updated with comments from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

The article was originally published at 4:45 a.m.

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