WASHINGTON—Congress on Thursday passed a two-week stopgap spending bill, deferring until later in the month a bigger fight over what issues should be resolved before lawmakers leave Washington for the year.
The spending patch, which will keep the government funded through Dec. 22, avoids a partial government shutdown just over a day before its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning.
The bill passed in a 235-193 vote in the House, with 221 Republicans supporting it and 18 opposed. That marks a victory for House GOP leaders, who spent much of the week wrangling with conservatives who had initially balked at a two-week spending bill. It later passed the Senate in an 81-14 vote.
“We’ll be working together in the next two weeks to find a long-term solution to our funding needs while maintaining fiscal discipline,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said in a statement after the House vote.
Both Republicans and Democrats are trying to make sure they are in the best position to wrest legislative victories out of a frenzied push in the final weeks of the year.
Congressional leaders are working on a two-year budget agreement with President Donald Trump that would raise both military and nonmilitary spending above the levels, known as the sequester, established in a 2011 budget and debt limit fight. Those lower spending levels kicked in in 2013, but lawmakers have since then passed two budget deals bumping spending higher. The last budget deal ended in September, but lawmakers have kept the government running at that level, as of Thursday evening through Dec. 22.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) met with Mr. Ryan and Mr. Trump Thursday afternoon and spent most of the time working on where to set spending levels for the next two-year deal, an aide said. Republicans are pushing for $54 billion more in defense funding a year. Democrats want to ensure a comparable increase for nondefense spending, according to aides.
“Nothing specific has been agreed to, but discussions continue,” Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi said in a joint statement after the meeting.
Once that budget deal has been reached, lawmakers can write the detailed spending bill that would fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
But with no deal in hand, lawmakers will likely not have enough time to write that full spending bill before the year ends, Mr. Ryan said Thursday.
“That takes weeks to do and you want to do it right,” Mr. Ryan said.
That means that Congress will likely have to pass another stopgap spending bill in late December funding the government through some portion of January. In the House, conservatives have been lobbying to fully fund the military through the rest of the year, while only doing a short-term patch for the rest of the government.
“We’re still working on trying to make sure we don’t get a terrible spending bill with unbelievably high numbers” later this month, Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen House conservatives, said this week. “We’re playing three-dimensional chess four moves out.”
But other Republicans rejected that approach, saying it would never make it through the Senate, where Democratic votes will be needed. Spending bills require 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats.
“That proposal assumes the U.S. Senate does not exist. This is a case of Senate denial,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.) said of the idea to fully fund only defense in late December. “The Senate will simply not separate defense from nondefense.
“That proposal “will not work,” confirmed Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) Thursday evening.
That is not the only fight congressional leaders could have on their hands on the next short-term spending bill later this month. Democrats in both the House and Senate have said they won’t support any spending bill that doesn’t include protections for so-called Dreamers, young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children.
Mr. Trump in September ended an Obama-era program shielding them from deportation, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, with the protections beginning to expire in early March. That gave Congress six months to pass legislation protecting them.
Democratic leaders have said protecting the Dreamers is one of their top priorities in any year-end bills, but haven't threatened to withhold their votes on spending bills, which could trigger a partial government shutdown.
“We will not leave here without a DACA fix,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters Thursday. At the same time, she said. “Democrats are not willing to shut the government down.”
GOP leaders said after Thursday’s White House meeting that while they want to pass legislation shielding the Dreamers from deportation, they want that to be separate from the spending bills.
“While all agreed on the need to address the DACA population, the Republican leaders stressed the need to address border security, interior enforcement and other parts of our broken immigration system and that this should be a separate process and not used to hold hostage funding for our men and women in uniform,” spokesmen for Messrs. Ryan and McConnell said in a joint statement.
Democrats also want to make sure Congress reauthorizes the Children’s Health Insurance Program and provides funding for community health centers, as well as passes emergency relief for victims of the recent hurricanes and wildfires. It isn’t clear yet which, if any, of those issues could be deferred until January.
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