Trump signs stopgap bill to avoid U.S. government shutdown

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump signed a stopgap funding bill on Thursday that would keep the federal government open through December 11, the White House said in a statement.

Trump signed the measure into law shortly after government funding ran out at midnight.

The law would maintain current funding levels for most programs, avoiding a government shutdown in the middle of a pandemic just weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

It would also give lawmakers more time to work out budget details for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30 2021, including for military operations, healthcare, national parks, space programs, and airport and border security.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 82-6 on a procedural motion to advance the temporary funding bill.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives approved the measure a week ago after Democrats struck a deal with the White House and Republicans on farmers’ aid and nutritional assistance for children.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Peter Graff)

House Democrats file bill to fund U.S. government but leave out new farm money

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress this week will consider legislation funding the federal government through mid-December, with lawmakers hoping to avoid the spectacle of a government shutdown amid a pandemic and just weeks before the Nov. 3 elections.

House Democrats announced Monday they had filed the legislation, which leaves out new money that President Donald Trump wanted for farmers. A Democratic aide said the bill could be on the House floor as soon as Tuesday. The Senate could then act later this week.

The new federal fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

The bill is designed to give lawmakers more time to work out federal spending for the period through September 2021, including budgets for military operations, healthcare, national parks, space programs, and airport and border security.

The spending proposal “will avert a catastrophic shutdown in the middle of the ongoing pandemic, wildfires and hurricanes, and keep government open until December 11, when we plan to have bipartisan legislation to fund the government for this fiscal year,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

But the measure’s December end date will require Congress to return to the government funding question again during its post-election lame-duck session, either during or after what could be a bruising fight to confirm Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And the legislation does not include $21.1 billion the White House sought to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation, a program to stabilize farm incomes, because Democrats considered this a “blank check” for “political favors,” said a House Democratic aide who asked not to be named. Trump promised more farm aid during a rally in Wisconsin last week.

Republicans were not happy. “House Democrats’ rough draft of a government funding bill shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need. This is no time to add insult to injury and defund help for farmers and rural America,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote on Twitter. Republicans could seek to amend the document to add in the provision.

The bill proposes spending $14 billion to shore up a trust fund that pays for airport improvements and air traffic control

operations. It also proposes extending surface transportation funding for another year, directing $13.6 billion to maintain current spending levels on highways and mass transit.

Pelosi said the bill would also save America’s older citizens from an increase in Medicare health insurance premiums of up to $50 per month.

Congressional Democrats have had a stormy relationship with the White House over federal funding since Trump took office early in 2017. He has sought deep cuts in domestic spending while ramping up military funds.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; additional reporting by David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

this week will consider legislation funding the federal government through mid-December, with lawmakers hoping to avoid the spectacle of a government shutdown amid a pandemic and just weeks before the Nov. 3 elections.

House Democrats announced Monday they had filed the legislation, which leaves out new money that President Donald Trump wanted for farmers. A Democratic aide said the bill could be on the House floor as soon as Tuesday. The Senate could then act later this week.

The new federal fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

The bill is designed to give lawmakers more time to work out federal spending for the period through September 2021, including budgets for military operations, healthcare, national parks, space programs, and airport and border security.

The spending proposal “will avert a catastrophic shutdown in the middle of the ongoing pandemic, wildfires and hurricanes, and keep government open until December 11, when we plan to have bipartisan legislation to fund the government for this fiscal year,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

But the measure’s December end date will require Congress to return to the government funding question again during its post-election lame-duck session, either during or after what could be a bruising fight to confirm Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And the legislation does not include $21.1 billion the White House sought to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation, a program to stabilize farm incomes, because Democrats considered this a “blank check” for “political favors,” said a House Democratic aide who asked not to be named. Trump promised more farm aid during a rally in Wisconsin last week.

Republicans were not happy. “House Democrats’ rough draft of a government funding bill shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need. This is no time to add insult to injury and defund help for farmers and rural America,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote on Twitter. Republicans could seek to amend the document to add in the provision.

The bill proposes spending $14 billion to shore up a trust fund that pays for airport improvements and air traffic control

operations. It also proposes extending surface transportation funding for another year, directing $13.6 billion to maintain current spending levels on highways and mass transit.

Pelosi said the bill would also save America’s older citizens from an increase in Medicare health insurance premiums of up to $50 per month.

Congressional Democrats have had a stormy relationship with the White House over federal funding since Trump took office early in 2017. He has sought deep cuts in domestic spending while ramping up military funds.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; additional reporting by David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Trump signs law to fund overdue maintenance of public lands

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a rare bipartisan bill that will use royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling operations to fund long-overdue maintenance of public lands, national parks and Native American schools.

Trump said more than 5,500 miles of road, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings were in critical need of repair.

“Today we’re making the most significant investment in our parks since the administration of the legendary conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at the White House.

The Great American Outdoors Act will permanently direct $900 million a year to a long-standing federal program aimed at acquiring and protecting public lands.

Work on the unusual bipartisan effort was led by Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, who are both up for re-election this year and spoke at the event, and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The law will insulate the Land and Water Conservation Fund from the congressional appropriations process, ensuring steady funding at double the level seen in recent years by tapping royalties paid by offshore oil and gas drilling operations.

The LWCF was created in 1964, but Congress in most years has diverted funding for it to other uses. It received $495 million in funding last year.

Trump said the law would provide $10 billion to address deferred maintenance needs at national parks and forests, without “bludgeoning our workers and crushing our businesses.”

He took aim at China, Russia, India and other countries that he said were continuing to pollute the environment instead of adopting costly protective measures. “We’re working with other countries to try and get them to up their game,” he said.

Vice President Mike Pence said the measure would create more than 110,000 new infrastructure jobs across the country.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown)

Summer outside? Calls to preserve U.S. public lands after lockdown

By Gregory Scruggs

SEATTLE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Before March, avid mountain biker Levi Rose never used to see a full parking lot at Beacon Hill, a popular trail destination in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.

But with state parks and gyms closed after Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order to stem the novel coronavirus, cooped-up residents began looking for exercise options closer to home.

Rose suddenly found himself sharing the trailhead with many new faces precisely at a time when the public was being asked to maintain physical distance.

“Parking lots were filling up, so I changed my behavior to seek out non-peak hours,” Rose, a geographic information specialist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “At dinnertime, places I liked to bike (through) were less crowded.”

Outdoor recreation features heavily in the first phases of reopening plans for most U.S. states, even as public officials continue to discourage large gatherings and many national parks remain closed.

With summer approaching and diversions like music festivals, cinemas and theme parks still largely off-limits, conservation groups are lobbying Congress for dedicated public lands funding, ahead of the coming surge of crowds to parks around the country.

“Everyone is coping with the crisis by going outside,” said Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental charity.

The Nature Conservancy joined more than 850 organizations, ranging from outdoor clubs to tourism boards, in a letter last month urging Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.

The bill was first introduced in March, just as the new coronavirus pandemic began occupying lawmakers’ attention.

Congress would spend up to $9.5 billion over five years on the National Park System, which comprises about 4% of total land in the United States, and dedicate $900 million annually to the recently reauthorized Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“We know that Americans are getting back to the basics with their families and going out more into their public lands, which provide excellent social-distancing platforms for people’s activities,” Cors said in a phone interview.

“The Great American Outdoors Act supports all of these goals through maintenance and increased access by providing more land for conservation and recreation.”

‘MORE PRESSURE ON PARKS’

Rose, the mountain biker in Spokane, volunteers with a mountain bike club to build new trails in a county that is 92.5% private land, according to data tabulated by Montana-based research firm Headwaters Economics.

“When you don’t have that much public space and you restrict it even more, what we end up seeing is more pressure on city and county parks,” he said.

Passing the Great American Outdoors Act could help ease that pressure, say the bill’s supporters.

The National Park Service estimated an $11.9 billion deferred maintenance backlog at the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

Chipping away at that list of potholed roads, crumbling bridges and aging visitor centers would help make less popular parks more attractive at a time when the public has been urged to spread out, say park advocates.

“We’re trying to disperse visitation across the country to more close-to-home places,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, the parks’ official charity.

“And even within parks, we’re trying to disperse visitation so we’re not creating large crowds in small places.”

Just 10 national parks – including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Great Smoky Mountains, straddling North Carolina and Tennessee – account for 15% of annual visitors, according to park service figures.

“The enactment of (the Act) would be historic and would allow the Department of the Interior to better care for the lands it manages,” National Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said in emailed comments.

SHORT-TERM SOLUTION

The other beneficiary of the bill’s passing would be the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was permanently reauthorized in February 2019.

Using about $900 million a year from offshore oil revenues, the program allows for the purchase of private land for parks and recreation.

Rose’s mountain bike club has requested $500,000 from the fund to secure 160 acres (65 hectares) of private land whose future development would threaten the Beacon Hill trails.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important close-to-home public green spaces like Beacon Hill are, and without LWCF it would be very difficult to purchase these important green spaces,” he said.

Last month Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate would vote on the Great American Outdoors Act in June.

“Our mountain towns were hit hard by COVID-19. The ski season ended early, restaurants closed and hotels emptied,” said act co-sponsor Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner in a statement.

“Now is the time to pass this bill that will provide billions of dollars in funding for new jobs across Colorado and the country while protecting our public lands.”

Jill Simmons, head of the Washington Trails Association, a nonprofit, said that local outdoor groups support permanent funding for the LWCF, but cautions that the National Park System needs more than five years of funding to solve the long-term maintenance needs of U.S. public lands.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is a good first step. Just like our road system, our trail system is infrastructure that needs ongoing support,” she said.

“When you’re talking about an infrastructure system that can meet demand for generations, (the Act) is a boost and a start, but not the end-all, be-all.”

(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

States Could Reopen National Parks

The Obama administration announced that it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks that had been closed in the federal government shutdown.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said they will consider offers from individual states to reopen some parks but they will not relinquish control of the park itself to the states.

The governors of Utah, South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado have made requests to the administration to allow the states to fund park operations. The governors say the closure of the parks has had a unusually large impact on the communities surrounding the parks.

“The current federally mandated closure is decimating the bottom line of bed-and-breakfast business owners and operators in Torrey (Utah), outfitters at Bryce Canyon City and restaurant owners in Moab,” Utah Governor Gary Herbert wrote. He estimated the shutdown has cost Utah $100 million so far.

The National Park Service itself has stated they are losing close to $450,000 a day in revenue from the parks.