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President Donald Trump accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, listens as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks before a meeting with congressional leaders including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Congress returns with just days to avoid shutdown

(PhatzNewsRoom / The Hill)    —   Republican lawmakers fresh off their annual GOP legislative retreat will be confronting an all-too-familiar problem when they return to Washington on Monday: avoiding a government shutdown.

GOP leaders are eyeing a six-week funding bill that would keep the government’s lights on until March 23. The measure could include sweeteners like funding for community health centers.

But even though leaders dismissed concerns that the government could close down again when current funding runs dry on Thursday, it’s still unclear whether frustrated defense hawks will go along with the plan to pass a funding bill without a boost for the military.

“We’ve got to get a deal on [budget] caps,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “We have too many people, too many Republicans who are adamant that we got to come up with a defense number that takes into consideration the requirements that we need to meet for national security.”

Congressional Republicans huddled at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., last week to hash out their legislative goals for 2018. But so far this year, their agenda has been hobbled by an inability to fund the government for more than a few weeks at a time.

A bitter impasse over immigration last month led to a three-day government shutdown, which ended after Democrats agreed to keep the government running for three more weeks, until Feb. 8.

Democrats are insisting that Congress pass an immigration bill before they agree to a budget caps deal, which is needed to write a massive omnibus-spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year.

Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and gave lawmakers until March 5 to come up with a permanent legal solution for the program.

But with Congress still nowhere closer to a deal on DACA or the budget caps, lawmakers are staring down the passage of another temporary funding patch – the fifth since September.

The House is expected to vote on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government on Tuesday because of a House Democratic retreat planned for Wednesday.

In a bid to attract more Democratic support for the CR, leadership is considering attaching two years of funding for health centers, which would amount to several billions of dollars, according to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

However, it’s unclear how much support the stopgap funding bill will have from the House GOP conference, where defense hawks and conservatives have grown increasingly frustrated with passing CRs. The cycle has left all government programs stuck at fiscal 2017 levels.

Defense Secretary James Mattis complained to lawmakers at the GOP retreat that stopgap funding bills hamstring U.S. military operations, which could provide further ammunition for conservatives looking to oppose the next CR.

“I cannot maintain the U.S. military on CRs,” Mattis said, according to sources in the closed-door meeting.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus has already fired off a warning shot to leadership that they may not support the next funding bill unless they get concessions from leadership on defense and immigration issues.

The band of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners have some leverage in the spending talks, since House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been refusing to supply the Democratic votes for a CR in the House without a DACA deal in place.

“I don’t see the probability of the Freedom Caucus supporting a fifth CR without substantial changes by Feb. 8, unless we see dramatic changes,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters at the retreat.

The Freedom Caucus and defense hawks have been pushing hard for leadership to include a full year of defense funding in the next short-term spending patch – an idea that has gone nowhere in the past, partly because it’s been considered dead-on-arrival in the Senate.

But Republicans think Senate Democrats, especially those up for reelection in red states that Trump won, may be more willing to swallow a CR package that only increases defense spending, since blocking it could result in another shutdown.

A group of moderate Senate Democrats, who came together to help reopen the government last month, may go along with the next CR as long as there are no poison pills.

They received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that he would put immigration and border security legislation on the floor if a DACA deal is not reached by Feb. 8, which could make them more comfortable with another CR.

But the stopgap spending bill that Congress will likely consider this week would extend government funding past the March 5 deadline that Trump gave to fix DACA. That means Democrats would be giving up some of their leverage in the immigration fight by kicking the spending debate into late March, though they could still hold up a deal on budget caps in exchange for a DACA deal.

Still, GOP leaders largely expressed confidence last week that there would not be another shutdown.

“I don’t think we’ll see a threat [of a] government shutdown again. … One of my favorite old Kentucky country sayings is, ‘there’s no education in the second kick of a mule,’ and so I think there will be a new level of seriousness here trying to resolve these issues,” McConnell told reporters at the Republican retreat.

___

– Scott Wong and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.

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