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Mark Trahant: Congress faces deadline to pass big spending bill

Congress nears another deadline for government funding legislation

Government Could Shutter for the Third Time This Year year on Friday at Midnight
By Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

The Omnibus: Lawmakers reject Trump cuts with increases for Indian programs

Here we go again. Congress has two days to resolve long standing disputes over immigration, health care, taxes, abortion rights, guns, building a border wall, a New York City tunnel, and funding federal programs. Republicans control the House and the Senate, but still need votes from Democrats to enact any spending legislation.

Wait. Didn’t that all happen five weeks ago? Yes. Well, sort of. The Congress and President Donald J. Trump agreed to an overall two-year, $1.2 trillion plan for spending federal dollars. That plan gave Congress five weeks to work out a variety of details, setting a deadline of March 23 at midnight.

And, so, here we go again. It’s the details that continue to divide Congress.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, told The Hill newspaper Monday that Congress is close. “They’re scrambling, working really hard to try to get them done so they can file tonight, or tomorrow at the latest.”

House rules require 72-hour notice before a vote. The legislation has yet to be posted.

Federal Indian programs are not a part of the policy disputes in Congress, but many agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service would have operations suspended during a government shutdown. Indian education programs are funded in advance and would not be impacted. There have been two short government shutdowns this year.

Michael “Keawe” Anderson, executive director of the Native American Contractors Association, sent a note to members suggesting contract officers investigate the status of federal contracts, especially if there is a “soft” shutdown over the weekend. “However, given the uncertainty that has become our new norm, I would also add that you should discuss a longer term shutdown – a ‘hard shutdown’—and what their expectations would be,” wrote Anderson.

The National Congress of American Indians was due to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs about the budget and the president’s drastic cuts. “Many of the proposed deep reductions in the president’s Budget threaten to limit this protection and these benefits,” the prepared testimony said. “The proposed budget cuts to tribal governmental services, if enacted, would represent a clear retreat from the federal commitments and treaty promises made to tribes. (Note: The hearing was postponed due to inclement weather in Washington, D.C.)

The President’s budget would cut the Bureau of Indian Affairs by about half a billion dollars, or 15 percent. BIA Social Services would be reduced by more than a third, Indian Child Welfare by more than a quarter, and critical human services programs, law enforcement and courts programs, environmental protection, housing, and education programs would face unconscionable reductions. Infrastructure programs, such as the Indian Community Development Block Grant would be eliminated, and the Indian Housing Block Grant and road maintenance would be reduced.”

It’s unclear how much funding would be restored to federal Indian programs under any Omnibus bill. The February deal between Congress and the president significantly increased spending for defense and domestic programs, but the details have yet to be enacted into law.

Both the House and Senate will have to act and the president would have have to sign the measure.

Before that occurs, however, there are serious policy disputes that have yet to be resolved.

Congressional Republicans continue to press for funds to construct a border wall with Mexico. Rep. John Carter R-Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee, told The Wall Street Journal that he is continuing to push for $1.6 billion for the border wall. Democrats have said that spending might be possible — if the budget extended protections for the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But there were still differences about a sharp increase for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Another issue splitting Democrats and the president was funding for the Gateway, a project to improve rail service in the New York City region. The president said he would veto any spending bill that included that $900 million project. (Many Republicans from New York and New Jersey support Gateway.)

Another complication: Abortion rights and health care spending. Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, have proposed language that would reimburse insurance companies for low-earning customers (a requirement of the Affordable Care Act.)

The Omnibus: Lawmakers reject Trump cuts with increases for Indian programs

President Trump told the two senators he supports the measure. However there is significant opposition in both the House and Senate. One provision would also add new abortion rights restrictions to dollars spent by insurance companies, something that Democrats say they could not support. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the abortion language conflicts with state laws in California, New York and Oregon.

Conservatives in the House say the spending proposals lack conservative “principles” and may voter against the legislation. Members of the House that support increased funding for the military have called for an end to short-term spending bills and want this process completed. Either one of those factors could complicate a last minute deal before a vote in the House and Senate.

Note: The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

Relevant Documents:
House Committee on Appropriations Press Release: Government-Wide Funding Legislation Released
Highlights: Fiscal Year 2018 Interior and Environment Bill
Bill Text - Division G | Bill Report - Division G
Rep. Nita Lowey statement on FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act

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Lawmakers reject Trump cuts with increases for Indian programs (March 22, 2018)