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House approves bill to keep government open as Senate Democrats threaten to block it

With a government shutdown looming, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan prepares for his press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Must credit: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
With a government shutdown looming, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan prepares for his press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Must credit: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
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WASHINGTON - The House approved a short-term spending bill Thursday to avoid a government shutdown, but passage was in doubt in the Senate as Democrats threatened to block it over the absence of a deal on undocumented immigrants.

House Republican leaders prevailed in lobbying the conservative House Freedom Caucus and defense hawks who demanded more money for the military in exchange for their votes.The bill passed 230-197.

But a government shutdown on the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration appeared likely as Democrats signaled they had rallied enough opposition to stop the measure from passing in the upper chamber.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., delivered a warning to Senate Democrats that they would pay a political price if they block the bill.

“Senate Democrats need to take this seriously and they need to not shut the government down,” Ryan told reporters following the House vote. “Do not hold kids or the military hostage.”

Republicans sought to pin the possible shutdown on the top Democratic senator, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, N.Y., with the Twitter hashtag #SchumerShutdown.

With Senate votes expected late Thursday, at least nine members of the Democratic Caucus who supported the last short-term spending bill in December said they will oppose the latest patch, according to multiple congressional aides.

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They are Maggie Hassan, N.H., Martin Heinrich, N.M., Tim Kaine, Va., Angus King, I-Maine, Patrick Leahy, Vt., Jeanne Shaheen, N.H., Jon Tester, Mont., Tom Udall, N.M., and Mark Warner, Va.

The short-term spending bill would keep the government open through Feb. 16 while extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years and rolling back several taxes in the Affordable Care Act. It does not include a solution for “dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, as Democrats have demanded.

Reflecting the election-year stakes, aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told senior staffers in a meeting that he is intent on muscling the bill through the chamber and putting pressure on Democrats to vote for it, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

The message at the meeting was: “Let’s bring the House bill over and have a quick vote and make the Democrats up in 2018 figure out what they want to do,” the person said.

McConnell’s prime electoral targets in his effort to expand the Senate’s Republican majority are the 10 Democrats from states that voted for President Trump in 2016.

In the House, Ryan had expressed confidence that the bill would pass. Though Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., initially predicted that GOP leaders would come up short, a majority of the group voted for the bill in a private meeting late Thursday.

Emerging from a meeting with Ryan, Meadows said leaders promised a vote in the next 10 days to increase military spending by billions of dollars.

Meadows said leaders also committed to a vote on a conservative immigration bill if they can show a majority of the House supports it.

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Speaking for Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., signaled the gravity of the situation by speaking in the present tense about a shutdown as if one was already happening.

“It’s really almost like amateur hour,” she told reporters at her weekly news briefing.

Despite House approval of the short-term spending bill, the measure’s chances of passage in the Senate are slim.

A growing number of lawmakers said they opposed the deal - not over immigration, but because they are tired of passing stopgap measures - and demanded that negotiations continue on a longer-term spending bill.

“We do not support perpetuating the current budgetary dysfunction that is hurting our country and our Commonwealth,” Kaine and Warner said in a joint statement. “The Republican leadership has to get serious about finding a budget deal and quit relying on short-term patches.

Republican Sens. Mike Rounds, S.D., Rand Paul, Ky., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also said they would vote no.

The growing opposition led some senators to discuss the possibility of a new approach: passing one- or two-day extensions of government funding to avoid a shutdown while lawmakers continue to negotiate.

But Republican leaders did not immediately embrace the idea, and it was unclear how it would work for the House, which is scheduled to be out of session next week.

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Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, leaving a meeting with other deputy leaders, rejected the idea that an immigration deal could be concluded by Friday at midnight. “No, no,” he told reporters.

If the government closes and its employees are furloughed, it will be the first time under unified party control of Congress and the White House.

The Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep national parks and monuments open despite a possible shutdown as a way to blunt public anger, and while the military would not cease to operate, troops would not be paid unless Congress specifically authorizes it.

The last shutdown, in 2013, did not end for 16 days as Republicans tried unsuccessfully to force changes to the Affordable Care Act.

This time, GOP lawmakers are forcing Democrats into the politically uncomfortable position of choosing between funding CHIP and their effort to win legal protections for dreamers. Republicans are already preparing political attacks on Democrats who vote no, party aides said.

Despite this, all but a few House Democrats had said they would not support the bill without an immigration or budget deal.

“If we can’t agree, your party has the majority in the House and the Senate to pass your own funding resolution. But that will be a bill we cannot support,” 171 of 193 House Democrats wrote in a letter to Trump.

The president fired back at Democrats during a trip to Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, arguing they’re pushing for a shutdown to distract voters from the GOP’s tax cuts. “That is not a good subject for them, the tax cuts,” Trump said.

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GOP lawmakers had spent the morning trying to make sense of several early-morning tweets by Trump that seemed to contradict Republicans’ legislative strategy.

In a back-and-forth reminiscent of last week, when Trump tweeted criticism of an intelligence bill that his administration had endorsed the day before, the president appeared to call for the separation of a long-term extension of CHIP from a short-term spending bill to keep the government open through mid-February.

While Republicans like Ryan suggested that the president was endorsing the GOP’s approach, others found the tweets inexplicable and unhelpful ahead of a possible election-year shutdown.

“We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” Graham said Thursday morning. “This has turned into an s-show for no good reason.”

Schumer echoed Graham’s sentiment.

“We barely know who to negotiate with,” he said, complaining about Trump’s tweets. “[Republicans] point at each other and nothing gets done.”

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The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey, Sean Sullivan, John Wagner and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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