WASHINGTON – House Republicans plan to vote Thursday on a plan to avoid a federal government shutdown through Feb. 16 while the Senate continues bipartisan negotiations on a new round of disaster aid for Puerto Rico and other hurricane victims.
“At this point, we can't foretell the outcome of those talks or when such a package could be available for consideration by the Senate,” a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said in an email, referring to the disaster aid package.
The two separate measures are not linked, but together they highlight the continuing partisan gridlock in Congress.
If the House and Senate can't get enough votes for the temporary spending measure, the federal government would shut down at midnight Friday.
Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus have threatened to oppose the short-term spending plan unless it includes a full-year increase in defense spending.
Democrats are opposing the measure because it doesn’t have a bipartisan agreement on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to formalize protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S.
The bipartisan DACA agreement by three Republican and three Democratic senators was trashed by Trump during a White House meeting last week at which he used a vulgar description for Haiti and African nations that would continue to be part of a reduced immigration lottery program.
Senate passage of the temporary funding measure is considered less in question because Democrats there who face re-election in November do not want to be linked to a shutdown.
Moreover, the one-month stopgap spending bill includes a six-year re-authorization of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The one-month measure would allow negotiations to continue on a two-year budget agreement, which Democrats are insisting must include an increase in domestic spending that’s equal to any defense spending increase.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., reiterated that position in a floor speech Wednesday.
“This side does not object to increasing defense alongside of other needs, which are just as important in our judgment,” Schumer said. “A parent, whose son or daughter has died of opioid addiction because they couldn’t get treatment, doesn’t think that opioid addiction should play second fiddle to any proposal.”
Democrats also have criticized as insufficient the $81 billion in hurricane disaster aid that passed the House in December for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida and Texas.
The disaster aid bill needs a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate for passage, meaning that the Republicans need the support of at least nine Democrats.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has said he wants “a comprehensive disaster relief package that takes into consideration the unique needs of the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
Puerto Rico alone has estimated it needs $94 billion in federal aid.
Both U.S. territories are requesting the federal government to temporarily pick up 100% of the cost of Medicaid health services for low-income families as has been done for previous disasters in other states.
The House-passed bill failed to do that. Puerto Rico continues to pay a 45% share of the medical treatment of Medicaid patients who were flown to Florida and New York for treatment with severe injuries from Hurricane Maria, according to Edwin Park vice president for health policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
“We and others have strongly supported a temporary 100% match,” Park said. “The House keeps passing partisan things rather than being patient and actually putting on the floor a bipartisan agreement. It’s clear from the Senate viewpoint that it’s a nonstarter. They know it was not going to be accepted by the Senate.”
Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, the non-voting delegate from the Virgin Islands, said Wednesday the local infrastructure “remains decimated” with schools operating in split sessions and some hospital patients still on the mainland.
"The longer that Congress negotiates and the disaster funding gets entangled in the politics of government shutdown, continuing resolutions, Dreamers, and now an infrastructure bill, the greater my concern that the needs of the ‘forgotten territory- the U.S. Virgin Islands” will be adequately addressed,” Plaskett said.