- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Congress is taking big strides to defuse President Trump’s shutdown threat, working to pass as many spending bills as possible before next month’s deadline so most of the government will remain open no matter what Mr. Trump demands on border security.

On Wednesday, the Senate cleared a $154 billion package that funds the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS and other programs for 2019. Senators now have passed seven of the 12 bills needed to keep the government open. The House has passed six.

Those measures still need to be reconciled in a conference committee, but lawmakers are pushing to have as many as nine bills completed before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, putting those operations on firm footing and outside the reach of a government shutdown.

“This is actually the way this work is supposed to be done,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican. “It’s supposed to be done before the 30th of September. It’s supposed to be done in smaller packages where members have a chance to debate the amendments on the floor, and we’re doing that.”

It has been years since Congress passed even one of the dozen bills on time, and Democrats and Republicans are intent on doing better this year to avoid an election-eve shutdown showdown.

Mr. Trump, though, is making it difficult.

The president this week repeatedly has said he would shut down the government if Congress doesn’t give him enough money for his proposed border wall and other immigration priorities.

“I’d be willing to do it. And you could do it before the election or after the election,” he told radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump hasn’t said exactly how much money would be enough.

The Senate included $1.6 billion for wall construction in its 2019 homeland security spending proposal. House lawmakers have allocated $5 billion in their version.

The bills have been approved at the committee level, but neither one has passed in a floor vote. Lawmakers signaled that is one bill on which they are unlikely to reach agreement before the fiscal year deadline.

Still, if they can pass most of the other bills — and get Mr. Trump to sign them — then most of the government would be spared from a shutdown threat.

Mr. Blunt estimated that if all goes according to plan, the Senate could end August having passed spending bills totaling close to 90 percent of the approximately $1.2 trillion in total discretionary spending for next year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the president’s threats to shut down the government if he doesn’t get enough money for his border wall are getting emptier as more spending bills advance.

“I think these threats are really ill-advised. I don’t think they’re taken in a constructive way,” Ms. Feinstein said. “I mean, the Congress works its will, then the president gets the bills and he can work his will, but it doesn’t work to make threats in my view.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the shutdown threats can’t be dismissed outright, but Mr. Trump would be deciding to veto bills that pass Congress with bipartisan margins.

“If the president wants to veto appropriations bills, that’s his decision,” Mr. Durbin said. “He has the last word on the veto pen.

“But what we have tried to do is to show bipartisanship, and we have produced results — actual bills on the floor, actual amendments — something almost close to debate. All these things are good,” the senator said.

Mr. Trump hasn’t used the V-word, but he does seem to be spoiling for a fight.

“I happen to think it’s a great political thing because people want border security,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, said a shutdown isn’t in anyone’s interest and the president’s threats could be motivating some senators to get their work done faster.

“Well, some people take a threat to speed it up and work together. Some people would take a threat [and] say, ‘What the heck? Why do we want to work together?’ But I want to work together to try to get our bills through,” Mr. Shelby said.

Mr. Shelby and Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, have made a concerted effort this year to minimize the number of controversial policy “riders” in the Senate’s spending bills that routinely gum up the process.

House Republicans can muscle through spending bills by their sheer numbers, but the more evenly divided Senate needs support from at least some Democrats to get legislation passed.

The Republican-controlled House has passed six of its 12 annual spending bills: defense, interior and the environment, financial services and general government, military construction and veterans affairs, energy and water, and legislative branch.

The Senate has passed seven: agriculture, transportation and housing, interior/environment, and financial services/government — which were in the package approved Wednesday — and its own “minibus” that included military construction/VA, energy/water, and legislative branch spending.

Senators are also in session for much of August to make headway on another five bills: defense and labor/health/education — which leaders want to package together for a floor vote this month — homeland security, state/foreign operations, and commerce, justice and science.

The funding in each bill generally lasts through the end of fiscal 2019, which means agencies would be set through Sept. 30, 2019. The more bills that clear Congress, the less government there is to be snared in a shutdown.

Even if the homeland security bill fails or is vetoed by Mr. Trump and Congress doesn’t approve stopgap funding, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference in day-to-day operations.

Essential government personnel such as Border Patrol agents, deportation officers and airport screeners would still report to work, as would most of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even if funding lapses, though they could face a delay in their pay until after the spending bill is signed into law.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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