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VOL. 42 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 16, 2018

Spending talks nearly done, $1.3T bill soon to be unveiled

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Talks over a $1.3 trillion government spending bill are almost complete as the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats ironed out deals on a first round of funding for President Donald Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Congressional aides said early Wednesday that Trump would win $1.6 billion for border security, including technology and constructing older wall designs but would be denied a more recent, far larger $25 billion request for multi-year funding for the wall project.

Negotiators planned to officially unveil the massive government-wide spending bill later Wednesday in hopes of passing it before a Friday midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown. A temporary funding bill to keep operations going this weekend might be required.

The bill would give Trump a huge budget increase for the military, while Democrats would cement wins on infrastructure and other domestic programs that they failed to get under President Barack Obama.

The aides required anonymity because the agreement is not yet public.

Battles over budget priorities in the huge bill were all settled, while a handful of non-budget issues remained, including a GOP effort to fix a poorly drafted section of the recent tax cut law that is harming Midwestern grain companies.

Another fight, resolved in Trump's favor, would remove an earmark for a rail tunnel under the Hudson River that's a top priority of Trump's most powerful Democratic rival, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The project would remain eligible for funding, but would have to compete with dozens of other rail and transit projects sought by other states.

The measure on the table would provide major funding increases for the Pentagon — $80 billion over current limits — bringing the military budget to $700 billion and giving GOP defense hawks a long-sought victory.

"We made a promise to the country that we would rebuild our military. Aging equipment, personnel shortages, training lapses, maintenance lapses — all of this has cost us," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "With this week's critical funding bill we will begin to reverse that damage."

Domestic accounts would get a generous 10 percent increase on average as well, awarding Democrats the sort of spending increases they sought but never secured during the Obama administration.

Democrats touted almost $4 billion to fight the nation's opioid addiction epidemic. More than $2 billion would go to strengthen school safety through grants for training, security measures and treatment for the mentally ill. Medical research at the National Institutes of Health, a longstanding bipartisan priority, would receive a record $3 billion increase to $37 billion. Community development block grants, which are flexible funds that are enormously popular with mayors and other local officials, appear set for a record increase despite being marked for elimination in Trump's budget plan.

"We have worked to restore and in many cases increase investments in education, health care, opioids, NIH, child care, college affordability and other domestic and military priorities," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key negotiator of the measure.

Agencies historically unpopular with Republicans, such as the IRS, appear likely to get increases too, in part to prepare for implementation of the Republicans' recently passed tax measure. The Environmental Protection Agency, always a GOP target, may get a reprieve this year.

Lawmakers agreed on the broad outlines of the budget plan last month, after a standoff forced an overnight shutdown. The legislation implementing that deal is viewed as possibly one of few bills moving through Congress this year, making it a target for lawmakers and lobbyists seeking to attach their top priorities.

But efforts to add on unrelated legislation to tackle politically charged issues, such as immigration and rapidly rising health insurance premiums, appeared to fail.

One involved a bid to extend protections for so-called Dreamer immigrants brought to the country as children. And while Democrats yielded on $1.6 billion in wall funding, none of that money would go for the new prototypes that Trump recently visited in San Diego. Negotiators rejected Trump's plans to hire hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration enforcement agents, congressional aides said.

The bill would add $143 billion over limits set under a 2011 budget and debt pact that forced automatic budget cuts on annual agency appropriations. Coupled with last year's tax cuts, it heralds the return of trillion-dollar budget deficits as soon as the budget year starting in October.

Republican conservatives are dismayed by the free-spending measure, meaning Democratic votes are required to pass it. That gave Democrats leverage to force GOP negotiators to drop numerous policy riders that Democrats considered poison pills.