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Partisan fights imperil race to fund US government

Michael Mathes
The measure, backed by President Donald Trump thanks in part to a last-minute sales pitch by Ryan at the White House, was introduced with precious little time to act (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers lurched toward finishing a crucial spending deal Wednesday, although the massive legislation that will touch every aspect of American life had yet to be filed barely 48 hours before a looming government shutdown.

Eleventh-hour snags on multiple issues, including immigration enforcement, border security, infrastructure and health care payments, have apparently bogged down the release of a $1.3 trillion spending bill, despite claims of optimism by leaders in both parties that an agreement will be reached in time.

The measure that funds federal operations for the remainder of fiscal year 2018, which ends September 30, must pass the House of Representatives and Senate and receive President Donald Trump's signature by the congressionally-imposed midnight Friday deadline in order to keep the government open.

Failure to do so could lead to the third government shutdown of the year, an embarrassing mark on a Republican-controlled Congress facing mid-term elections in November.

The monster measure follows the outlines of a 2018-2019 budget deal reached last month that substantially boosts both military and domestic spending.

Funding for the military, which Trump has repeatedly called depleted from budgetary constraints, could soar to some $700 billion in the measure, including a 2.4-percent pay raise for troops.

Democrats can meanwhile claim increased domestic spending on issues like infrastructure, education and battling the opioid crisis.

"We feel really good about where things are," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer expressed similar confidence.

The bill is said to include nearly $1.6 billion for construction of nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) of physical barriers and fencing along the US-Mexico border.

- Trump 'supportive' -

But with Friday's deadline looming, and reports that Trump was having misgivings about supporting the measure because it lacked enough funding for his promised wall, Ryan headed to the White House to sell the plan.

"They had a good conversation about the wins delivered for the president, and he is supportive of the bill," Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement.

Among the sensitive issues addressed in the bill is gun violence. Lawmakers said it is expected to include a provision to strengthen compliance with background checks for firearm sales, and one that reverses what has essentially served as a ban on federal research on gun violence.

But last-minute haggling remained. It was unclear whether or not the measure would include a bipartisan effort to fund health care subsidies granted to insurance companies serving low-income patients.

While the catchall bill, known as an "omnibus," boosts border security, lawmakers say it leaves out any protections for young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

Protecting those who had been shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump ended on March 5, has been a Democratic priority.

But leaving DACA provisions out of the omnibus will likely lead to several Democrats opposing the bill.

"I will not vote for funding that continues Trump's war on immigrants," House Democrat Luis Gutierrez said.

The concern about the bill's lack of forward progress Wednesday swelled to the point that lawmakers began openly criticizing the process.

"Siri, where is the omnibus?" tweeted House Democrat John Garamendi.

An exasperated conservative House Republican Jim Jordan slammed the bill as "a bad piece of legislation," but also blasted congressional leaders at the secretive process.

"A $1.3 trillion spending bill that they're talking about. We still haven't seen the details of the legislation, and we're supposed to vote on it tomorrow?" Jordan posed to Fox News.

"That's probably not the way the American people want us to do business."

House leaders have expressed hope of voting on the bill on Thursday, then sending it to the Senate. But the upper chamber's rules allow any senator to slow down the legislative process, putting the timing of passage into question.