Congressional negotiators reached a final deal Monday on a rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law, and were pursuing an agreement on long-term highway funding as they begin a three-week sprint to close out the legislative year on what they hope is a bipartisan high note.
But storm clouds were also gathering, with Republicans trying to figure out how far they can press their political advantage in a year-end debate over 2016 spending — with some in the GOP demanding showdowns over funding for Planned Parenthood and President Obama’s plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
“I do not see a shutdown happening,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, told reporters — though he declined to say how he and his fellow leaders would handle calls from rank-and-file Republicans for fights over the thorny issues.
Already, dozens of Republicans have asked GOP leaders to include a provision that would block the Syrian refugee program until federal authorities found a way to thwart terrorists who might try to infiltrate the program and set up long-term monitoring of those who are admitted.
The focus on Syria and extremists linked to the Islamic State could eclipse efforts to defund Planned Parenthood over undercover videos that appeared to show organization officials negotiating the sale of fetal body parts. The the organization says it did nothing wrong, and a post-Thanksgiving tragedy is recasting the debate.
A gunman killed two civilians and a responding police officer at a Colorado branch of Planned Parenthood on Friday. The shooter reportedly mentioned “baby parts” after his arrest, kicking off a round of political finger-pointing over GOP rhetoric against the organization.
“We as leaders must be mindful of our words and our actions,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “Whipping people into a frenzy of hate and anger while providing them with easy access to firearms has proven disastrous in this country.”
In the House, Mr. McCarthy downplayed the idea of using must-pass spending legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, instead highlighting a select committee that is investigating how the organization and abortion providers harvest and transfer fetal issue. He also pointed to the alleged gunman’s mental state.
“The thing that drove him the most was he was a very evil, crazy man,” he said.
After a weeklong Thanksgiving vacation, lawmakers were back at work Monday with an eye on Dec. 18, which is when the House is slated to finish up for the year. Even before than, they must meet a Dec. 11 deadline when current government funding expires.
Also on the three-week schedule are votes to override Mr. Obama’s climate change rules, an effort to repeal major parts of Obamacare and to strip funding from Planned Parenthood using a fast-track budget tool that can avoid a Democratic filibuster, and votes on the final education and highway deals.
The education agreement keeps federal math and reading standards in place, but leaves it up to states to decide how to measure students’ performance in working toward those standards.
“These represent significant accomplishments for the new Congress and significant wins for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said. “Some pundits said Washington could never take these issues on at all, but we did.”
Mr. McConnell was walking his troops late Monday through the fast-track process, known as budget reconciliation, they hope will get a repeal of parts of Obamacare to the president’s desk. Mr. Obama would still use his veto to kill it, but it would be the first time a major repeal has at least cleared Congress.
But the fast-track legislation also includes provisions to defund Planned Parenthood, which doesn’t sit well with a few moderate GOP senators. Some conservatives, meanwhile, complain that the bill doesn’t fully repeal Obamacare, meaning the Senate GOP may struggle to get the necessary votes from its conference.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said the package will be “bigger and better” than what the House sent over.
Lawmakers offered few details ahead of the formal release of a plan by Mr. McConnell but said the latest iteration would retain the Planned Parenthood defunding provision. It includes language to phase out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion over the next two years so that beneficiaries aren’t left out in the cold when Republicans try to replace the law with a new president in 2017.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican who had pledged to vote “no” unless the package went further than the House bill.