As President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed to force a partial government shutdown before Christmas if he doesn't get $5 billion for a wall along the Mexican border, Congressional leaders were trying to clear the decks in the House and Senate for a final surge of legislative work in the 115th Congress, in hopes of getting lawmakers out of town before the holidays.
"With maximum cooperation, magic things happen at Christmas," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, even as he threatened to keep the Senate in session between Christmas and New Year's in order to finish work for the year.
Hanging over the schedule was the President's threat to force a showdown over government funding, unless he wins more money for border security.
"I don't think the President's bluffing," said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to a group of reporters just off the Senate floor. "I think he's a serious as four heart attacks and a stroke."
Here's where we stand:
1. Trump: "I am proud to shut down the government for border security." In a highly unusual Oval Office meeting that went off the rails in front of television cameras and reporters, President Trump sparred with Democratic leaders over what to do on the border wall issue, as he repeatedly proclaimed that he would gladly be responsible for a partial funding lapse on December 21. "I'm going to shut it down for border security," the President said. "But we believe you shouldn't shut it down," Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer answered, as the President publicly sparred with Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Much of the government has already been funded for 2019, so any shutdown before Christmas would be more limited than usual. You can watch part of the Oval Office exchange here:
2. $5 billion for border wall not a GOP slam dunk. President Trump on Tuesday repeatedly made clear that he wants $5 billion for his wall along the Mexican border, arguing Democrats are the ones who are blocking that funding. But the truth is that GOP leaders in the House aren't sure they have a majority of votes for $5 billion for the border wall - one reason the funding bill for the Homeland Security Department was never voted on before the elections. There was some talk on Wednesday that the House might try to vote on such a bill, but House Speaker Paul Ryan instead was talking about supporting whatever can get through the Senate. In other words, the President may want $5 billion, but the Republican Congress may not be able to deliver.
3. McConnell agrees to move on criminal justice reform. After refusing to get on board with a bipartisan plan that has the backing of the President, the Senate Majority Leader announced on Tuesday that he will push for action in the Senate in coming days on a criminal justice reform measure, which backers say could get 70 votes in the Senate. But - there are strong opponents, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and it wasn't known whether Cotton would try to string out the debate because of concerns over changes in early release of certain criminals, changes to mandatory minimum sentences, and press new reforms in federal prisons for inmates.
4. New Farm Bill on its way to Congressional approval. One clear sign that the Congress is moving to finish work for the year is that the Senate voted 87-13 on Wednesday to approve a massive new farm policy bill. The "Farm Bill" includes all sorts of tweaks and changes to agricultural programs in the United States, which touch all fifty states. Also, it includes the SNAP program - more commonly known as food stamps - which House Republicans wanted to make major changes in terms of work requirements. But in order to get a final deal, many of those GOP changes did not happen. The 807 page bill is chock full of all sorts of local items, like one provision which could possibly establish a "Natural Stone Research and Promotion Board." Overall though, it was a bipartisan bonanza for lawmakers to tout to the folks back home.
5. GOP tries second version of late tax bill. After a 297 page package of tax relief ran into the ditch because of a lack of support in the House after Thanksgiving, Republicans re-tooled the plan and released a new 253 page version on Monday, which deals with an array of tax issues - disaster relief, an expansion of 529 college savings accounts, delays in several taxes from the Obama health law, changes and technical corrections to last year's GOP tax law, and a number of IRS reforms. No longer in the bill are an array of provisions known as the "tax extenders" - special interest tax breaks which get approved every year or two, along with a lot of grumbling by lawmakers about the cost involved. But like the first version, it isn't clear if this GOP tax bill is going anywhere.
6. House and Senate still at odds on sex harassment changes. While members of the House and Senate agree that changes are needed in how the Congress handles sexual harassment accusations in Congressional offices - and against lawmakers - getting a final bill has not been easy. That's come as a surprise to some lawmakers, who assumed the Congress would swiftly finish such a plan. But there's been opposition to major changes from Senators, which has left House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi saying that if the Congress doesn't go far enough, then the House will change its own rules to deal with the issue. "We can take other action that applies to the House," Pelosi said last week.
7. House moves to prevent any War Powers vote on Yemen. While the Senate is ready to debate and vote measures related to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in the civil war in Yemen, GOP leaders in the House have evidently decided that they want no part of anything related to that. On Tuesday night, the House Rules Committee reported out a resolution which provides for action on the Farm Bill - but tucked into that was a provision which squashes the opportunity for debate on any War Powers resolution dealing with Yemen. "Despicable," said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who said Speaker Paul Ryan "is shirking responsibility for debating our involvement in the Yemen war by hiding the war resolution in a procedural vote on the farm bill."
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