Bill keeps government open during transition
Trump team to set new plans in 2017
Democrats’ anger petered out Thursday as the House passed a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open for nearly five more months, paving the way for Congress to wrap up and head home to prepare for a change of power in the White House next year.
The Senate gave final approval to an annual defense policy bill that continues to tie President Obama’s hands on closing Guantanamo Bay, officially ending any last chance he had of making good on his promise to shutter the terrorist prison before he leaves office.
Senators must still approve the final spending deal, but after it was approved 326-96 in the House, the question is when, not if, the upper chamber will give it a final OK.
Congress is racing a Friday deadline, though. Current funding runs out at midnight, and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, was threatening a delay, hoping for a long-term deal on health and pension benefits for miners.
With House lawmakers gone for the year, however, GOP leaders said the
options were either pass the bill as is or else force a partial government shutdown.
Republicans, who have been blamed for past shutdown showdowns, said this time it’s all on Democrats’ shoulders.
“Our friends across the aisle need to face up to the reality that if they somehow prevent us from passing this continuing resolution, it will be on their hands,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said. “So I hope they’ll reconsider, because they’re not going to be able to achieve the goal that they are seeking.”
California’s two Democratic senators, meanwhile, are feuding over handling of drought-relief measures in a separate water projects bill. That bill also cleared the House Thursday, on a lopsided 360-61 vote.
The defense bill cleared the Senate 92-7 — a vetoproof majority similar to the margin the measure won in the House.
There was no indication such a veto was in the offing, but the bill does constrain Mr. Obama in ways he has objected to.
Eight years after vowing to close down the detention facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, Mr. Obama is once again confronted with legislative language that prevents him from bringing any of the remaining 59 detainees to the U.S.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said the president will still try to ship as many detainees as he can to other countries willing to take them — but conceded the administration can’t overcome “obstacles” to closing Guantanamo that have been enacted by Congress.
“The politics of this are potent,” he said. “Congress, in response to those politics, has made this a very difficult task.”
When Mr. Obama took office there were more than 200 detainees, and he’s whittled the number down by finding willing takers for those detainees who aren’t going to be charged, but are no longer deemed dangerous enough to need to hold.
Conservatives had initially planned to use the defense bill to try to attain a number of other goals, including rolling back a 2014 Obama administration executive order that bans federal contractors from job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But those fights were dropped as Republicans figured they would wait and look to a Trump administration to change the policies unilaterally.
Similarly, the spending bill would keep government open until April 28, buying enough time for President-elect Donald Trump to get his team up and running before Congress resumes its budget fights.
The legislation, known in Capitol-speak as a “continuing resolution,” keeps most government agencies operating at 2016 levels, but boosts defense spending by some $8 billion on an annualized basis, hoping to keep up with the extensive U.S. military commitments overseas.
It also provides $4.1 billion in new disaster relief and reconstruction money to take care of damage from hurricanes, floods and severe drought, plus $170 million to address drinking water problems, including the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan.
Congress passed only one of the dozen annual spending bills it is supposed to approve each year, leaving most agencies running on stopgap funding since Oct. 1, which was the start of the fiscal year.
The House-passed bill included a controversial provision that would clear the way for retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis to be Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, despite only leaving the military in 2013. The law requires at least seven years to have elapsed before a retired member of the military can take over at the Pentagon.
Republicans want to quickly approve a waiver of the law next year, but could face an extensive delay with Senate filibusters. The new bill changes the usual debate rules, preserving the 60-vote threshold but limiting the amount of time a Democratic filibuster could last.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said the measure amounted to a sneaky end run by Republicans.
“Civilian leadership of the military is a bedrock principle of our democracy,” she said, “and any new standard deserves full debate by the Congress.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voted against the spending bill, saying it stiffed too many Democratic priorities — but most of her troops defected, joining Republicans to clear the measure, then heading for home.