Congress expected to vote on budget to avert government shutdown

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were expected to vote on a proposed budget deal on Thursday that would avert another government shutdown but that has angered fiscal conservatives who complain it would lead to a $1 trillion deficit.

The plan to keep the government operating and to increase spending over the next two years faced resistance from conservatives in the Republican Party, who favor less spending on domestic government programs. At the same time, many liberal Democrats wanted to withhold their support as leverage to win concessions on immigration policy.

That meant the bill’s passage was not assured in the House and would need some Democratic support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has backed the agreement, said on Thursday he believed the chamber will pass the budget deal.

“I think we will,” Ryan told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is a bipartisan bill. It’s going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support.”

Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the deal “eye-popping and eyebrow-raising.”

“We took an official position last night to say we can’t support this,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

The rare bipartisan deal reached by Senate leaders on Wednesday raises spending on military and domestic programs by almost $300 billion over the next two years.

It would allow for $165 billion in extra defense spending and $131 billion more for non-military programs, including health, infrastructure, disaster relief and efforts to tackle an opioid crisis in the country.

It would stave off a government shutdown before a Thursday night deadline and extend the federal government’s debt ceiling until March 2019, putting off for more than a year the risk of a debt default by the United States.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

The agreement, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, disappointed conservative House Republicans and outside groups.

“It’s not like Republicans aren’t concerned about disaster relief, or Republicans aren’t concerned about funding community health centers or dealing with the opioid crisis,” U.S. Representative Warren Davidson, a Republican, said in an interview with National Public Radio.

“But when you add them all up, it adds to an awful lot of spending. … It’s not compassionate to bankrupt America.”

Liberal Democrats meanwhile opposed the deal because it does not include an agreement to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” young people brought illegally to the United States as children.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday staged an eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of immigration legislation, including reading letters from Dreamers pleading to be allowed to stay in the United States.

A number of lawmakers who supported the bill acknowledged the deal was not perfect. “It’s not pretty,” Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger said on CNN.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester said he hoped House Democrats would back the measure. “We don’t want the perfect to get in the road of the good,” he told the cable network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said many lawmakers believe the defense spending in the bill was essential. “We’re going to get it through because most people will support it,” he told Fox News.

Senate Republicans planned a procedural vote on a stand-alone bill to increase military funding for the rest of the year to demonstrate support for Trump’s promised defense build-up.

Democrats will not support it because it does not contain similar spending increases for non-military programs. But the Senate’s failure to advance the bill will not damage the budget legislation, which is due for a vote later in the day.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the agreement provides long-term certainty in the budget and funding for Trump priorities including infrastructure and military funding.

Failure to agree on spending led to a partial three-day shutdown of government agencies last month.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

White House sees good chance of long-term budget deal

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers are expected to unveil “a good, bipartisan deal” on Wednesday that would raise current limits on federal spending for two years, the White House said, as Congress seeks to end fights over spending that have plagued Washington for months.

Higher defense spending expected in the agreement would allow President Donald Trump to make good on his campaign promise for a U.S. military build-up, although the White House is still concerned about non-defense spending levels, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told MSNBC.

But Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives’ Democratic leader, said she would not support such a deal, aimed at lifting some limits on government spending for two years, unless Republican Speaker Paul Ryan promised to advance legislation on immigration. Trump’s fellow Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

Over the past several months, congressional leaders have been negotiating a deal that would raise spending caps for the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, and the next one for both defense and non-defense programs.

A broad budget deal could ease the brinkmanship over spending that roils Washington so regularly that financial markets barely flinch anymore at the threat of a government shutdown.

“There’s some things that you give and take in a negotiation like this, and so I think this will be a good, bipartisan deal but we’re more excited about the defense spending,” Short said.

Aside from the planned longer-term deal, lawmakers were also trying to reach agreement by Thursday to avoid a shutdown and fund the government until March 23.

“We expect the government is not going to shut down this week,” Short said.

In a further sign of Congress’ inability to get basic work done, the House on Tuesday had to approve another stopgap bill to keep the federal government from shutting down.

Stopgap measures are needed when Congress fails to approve spending on time for a full fiscal year, something it has done only four of the past 40 years, according to congressional researchers.

The Senate was expected to take up the House stopgap legislation as Congress raced to get a finished bill for Trump to sign into law before government funding runs out on Thursday.

If that fails, the U.S. government would experience its second shutdown this year, after a partisan standoff over U.S. immigration policy led to a three-day partial shutdown last month.

Immigration again emerged as a possible point of contention in budget talks when Democrat Pelosi said she would oppose a two-year deal unless the Republican Ryan promised to advance legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of young adult immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” brought to the United States illegally as children.

Republicans are eager to keep spending and immigration separate. But Trump threatened on Tuesday to upend budget talks by saying he would welcome a government shutdown if Congress were not able to agree to changes in immigration law that he said would prevent criminals from entering the country.

January’s shutdown came after Democrats sought to have a spending bill include protections for the Dreamers that Trump has rescinded effective in March.

On Tuesday, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said the emerging Senate two-year deal would increase funding for domestic programs like drug treatment and broadband infrastructure that Democrats want, as well as a military spending increase sought by Republicans.

“We’re making progress,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic minority whip, told MSNBC on Wednesday.

Congress must also raise the federal debt ceiling or face defaulting on the government’s bills, and several Republican lawmakers said the matter would be part of Senate budget talks. The U.S. Treasury is expected to run out of borrowing options by late March.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump tells Republicans to get back on healthcare bill

U.S. President Donald Trump calls on Republican Senators to move forward and vote on a healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington,

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his administration on Sunday goaded Republican senators to stick with trying to pass a healthcare bill, after the lawmakers failed spectacularly last week to muster the votes to end Obamacare.

For the second day running, the Republican president tweeted his impatience with Congress’ inability to deliver on his party’s seven-year promise to replace the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare bill commonly known as Obamacare. Members of his administration took to the airwaves to try to compel lawmakers to take action.

But it was unclear whether the White House admonishments would have any impact on Capitol Hill, where Republicans who control both houses signaled last week that it was time to move on to other issues.

Republicans’ zeal to repeal and replace Obamacare was met with both intra-party divisions between moderates and conservatives and also the increasing approval of a law that raised the number of insured Americans by 20 million.

Polling indicates a majority of Americans are ready to move on from healthcare at this point. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Saturday, 64 percent of 1,136 people surveyed on Friday and Saturday said they wanted to keep Obamacare, either “entirely as is” or after fixing “problem areas.” That is up from 54 percent in January.

With the U.S. legislative branch spinning its wheels, the executive branch pledged to look at rewriting Obamacare regulations. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told ABC’s “This Week” that he would change those regulations that drive up costs or “hurt” patients.

Price sidestepped questions about whether there were administration plans to waive Obamacare’s mandate that individuals have health insurance, saying “all things are on the table to try to help patients.”

But Price also told NBC he would implement Obamacare because it is the “law of the land.”

That Obamacare was still law clearly angered Trump, who has no major legislative accomplishments to show for his first half-year in office. “Don’t give up Republican Senators, the World is watching: Repeal Replace …” the president said in a tweet on Sunday morning.

 

NOT ‘TIME TO MOVE ON’

On Friday, Senate Republicans failed to collect enough votes to repeal even a few parts of Obamacare. That capped a week of failed Senate votes on whether to simply repeal, or repeal and replace, the 2010 law, while Trump repeatedly berated lawmakers in a late attempt to influence the legislation.

“The president will not accept those who said, quote, ‘it’s time to move on,'” Kellyanne Conway, a senior counselor to Trump, said on Fox News Sunday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, had made exactly that comment before dawn on Friday morning after the failed healthcare vote.

The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said on Sunday lawmakers should stay in session to get something done on healthcare – even if this means postponing votes on other issues such as raising the debt ceiling.

“So yes. They need to stay. They need to work. They need to pass something,” Mulvaney said on CNN.

The House of Representatives has already gone home for its August break and the Senate is expected to do the same by mid-August.

Mulvaney also said Trump was seriously considering carrying out threats he tweeted about on Saturday, when the president said that “if a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!”

That tweet appeared to be referring to the approximately $8 billion in cost-sharing reduction subsidies the federal government pays to insurers to lower the price of health coverage for low-income Americans.

The Saturday tweet also appeared to be a threat to end the employer contribution for members of Congress and their staffs, who were moved from the normal federal employee healthcare benefits program onto the Obamacare insurance exchanges as part of the 2010 healthcare law.

“What he’s saying is, look, if Obamacare is hurting the American people – and it is – then why shouldn’t it hurt insurance companies and more importantly, perhaps for this discussion, members of Congress?” Mulvaney said on Sunday on CNN.

Some Republicans have said they are trying to find a way forward on healthcare. Senate Republican Susan Collins, one of three Republicans who voted against repealing parts of Obamacare on Friday, told NBC that Congress should produce a series of bills with bipartisan input on healthcare, including appropriating the cost-sharing subsidies.

The Senate has one vote scheduled when it reconvenes on Monday afternoon: whether to confirm a U.S. circuit court judge. Senate aides said they had no guidance for the agenda beyond that vote.

 

(Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Roberta Rampton, and Caren Bohan; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Mary Milliken)

 

U.S. House panel to take up bill to spur generic drug development

File photo: U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) asks questions of the witnesses during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 24, 2013.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee will take up bipartisan legislation next week to foster generic drug development, the committee’s chairman, Representative Greg Walden, said on Thursday.

“President (Donald) Trump made it clear … he wants competition to lower drug prices, and that is precisely what this measure will help accomplish,” Walden, a Republican from Oregon, said at a health subcommittee hearing.

“Specifically the bill will require FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) to prioritize, expedite and review generic applications of drug products that are currently in shortage, or where there are few manufacturers on the market,” Walden said.

Trump this week met pharmaceutical executives and called on them to cut prices. He said the government was paying “astronomical” prices for medicines in its health programs for older, disabled and poor people.

Walden said recently there had been cases of “bad actors” who “jacked up the price of drugs because there was no competition,” but he did not name names. “We want to make sure that does not happen again,” the congressman said.

“For those in the industry who think it’s okay to corner a market, drive up prices and rip off consumers, know that your days are numbered,” Walden said.

He said the bill would also increase transparency around the backlog of generic drug applications at the FDA, saying there was an “unacceptably high” number.

The bill will be sponsored by Representative Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Florida, and Representative Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, Walden said. Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

U.S. senators urge Trump to take tough line on Russia over Ukraine

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) (C) talks with reporters after the weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of 27 U.S. senators sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday urging him to take a tough line against Russia over what they termed its “military land grab” in Ukraine.

The letter, whose 12 Republican and 15 Democratic signatories included some leading foreign policy voices from Trump’s Republican party, was an early sign that lawmakers will publicly assert themselves on international matters where they disagree with his White House.

The New York property developer becomes president on Jan. 20.

Trump signaled during his campaign that he might take a softer line in dealings with Moscow, repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Putin said recently Trump confirmed to him that he was willing to mend ties.

“In light of Russia’s continued aggression and repeated refusal to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign right to choose its own destiny, we also renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic and military support for Ukraine,” said the letter, led by Senators Richard Durbin, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, who are co-chairmen of the Senate Ukraine caucus.

In the letter, seen by Reuters before its public release, the senators also said they believe Russia’s annexation of Crimea should not be accepted and the United States should not lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in eastern Ukraine.

President Barack Obama and Putin have had a challenging relationship, with stark differences over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Tensions have risen more with Obama’s Democratic Party in particular over cyber attacks attributed to Russia during the U.S. presidential election.

Among Republican senators who signed the letter were John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, head of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, signed the letter. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on Senate Armed Services, also did so.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)