Congress OKs defense bill, scrambles on stopgap measure

Andrew Taylor and Richard Lardner
Associated Press

Washington — A day ahead of a government shutdown deadline, Congress scrambled on Thursday to wrap-up unfinished business, voting decisively to send President Barack Obama a defense policy bill but facing obstacles on a stopgap spending measure.

The Senate passed the defense legislation by a wide margin, 92-7, a week after the House overwhelmingly approved the measure, 375-34. The bill rebuffs President Barack Obama’s quest to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; denies his bid to reduce the size of armed forces, and grants the troops a pay raise larger than the one their commander in chief recommended.

The government spending bill set for a vote in the House would keep the government running through April 28, along with $10 billion in supplemental war funding and $4 billion more for disaster relief for Louisiana and other states.

The hard-fought legislation also includes provisions to help Flint, Michigan, fix its lead-tainted water system and speed up next year’s confirmation for retired Gen. James Mattis as President-elect Donald Trump’s defense secretary.

But the fate of the stopgap bill was uncertain in the Senate, and the possibility of a government shutdown loomed with the deadline at midnight Friday. Coal-state Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have argued that a provision to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16,000 retired union coal miners facing the loss of coverage on Dec. 31 is insufficient.

Republicans insisted the deal was the best they could get.

“They’re not going to get what they want. They ought to actually be grateful for what they got. Because what they got was a continuation of these health care benefits,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican.

The standoff raised the possibility of a weekend Senate session.

“We’re going to stick together on this, and this is really important to Democrats,” Brown said. “And we hope that President-elect Trump, in his words about Buy America and his talk about workers, will help us convince Republicans. We’re not playing the ‘what if’ game.”

Also on deck in the House is separate legislation to authorize water projects that has sparked a major battle between environmentalists and agricultural interests over legislation to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.

The two measures are the last major items on the House agenda before lawmakers leave until early January, capping a tumultuous, often bitter two-year session of Congress.

A conservative rebellion booted Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, from office last year. Democrats staged an overnight sit-in on the House floor protesting the GOP-led Congress’ inaction on gun control. Senate Republicans refused to let Obama fill a Supreme Court vacancy after Justice Antonin Scalia died last February.

A divisive election last month was a capstone.

Tributes on Thursday to retiring senators offered a brief respite from rancor. The Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, delivered a long farewell speech. Reid, who is retiring after three decades in the chamber, received testimonials and applause after an hour-plus speech.

In the Senate, the path forward for the spending and water bills is tricky as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is siding with environmentalists and is openly feuding with California Democratic colleague Dianne Feinstein, an architect of the California water deal. Boxer is vowing to filibuster the water projects measure over the drought provision.

Democrats groused about the provision to make it easier for the Senate to process Mattis’ nomination next year. Congress needs to pass legislation to grant Mattis an exception from a law that requires a seven-year wait for former members of the military to serve in the civilian post. The provision would speed up action on the waiver though Democrats could still filibuster it, a late change that appears to have weakened their opposition.

The underlying spending bill would buy several months for the new Congress and incoming Trump administration to wrap up more than $1 trillion worth of unfinished agency budget bills. Republicans promise an immediate infusion next year of additional money for the Pentagon.

House and Senate leaders also disagreed about whether lawmakers have enough time to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement that House and Senate negotiators “were not able to come to agreement” on a variety of outstanding issues. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, disputed that, saying, “The reality is that the House is attempting to run us out of time in order to prevent this bill from moving forward.”