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House passes stopgap US spending bill as leaders eye long-term plan

[WASHINGTON] The House passed a temporary spending bill on Tuesday to keep the US government open until March 23 and fund the Defense Department through September as congressional leaders closed in on a longer-term agreement.

The 245-182 vote continues a pattern of using stopgap spending to fund the government since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, with lawmakers unable to agree to a full-year budget.

The measure would extend most government funding at current levels until March 23 while lifting budget caps to provide US$659 billion for the Pentagon through Sept 30.

A broader budget deal may be added to the legislation, HR 1892, before a Senate vote. Leaders in both parties are working on a two-year deal to lift caps on defense and domestic spending and break the cycle of temporary measures. A revised bill would have to be voted on again by the House before current funding runs out at the end of the day Thursday.

Senate leaders said they don't want to bring the government to the brink of a shutdown and see little risk that it would occur. Last month, the government was closed for three days as lawmakers sought to work out differences on the last temporary measure.

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"I think we're on the way to getting an agreement, and getting it very soon," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on Tuesday after lunch with GOP members.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, said he hopes a budget deal would include a provision to raise the US debt ceiling. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts the Treasury can prevent a default only through early March, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged Congress Tuesday to "act as soon as possible."

House and Senate leaders have been discussing a two-year budget deal that would cost more than US$250 billion for this fiscal year and the next one that begins Oct 1. Defense caps for each year would be raised by about $80 billion, while non-defense spending limits would be raised by about US$60 billion. Budget gimmicks would be used to add more domestic spending, allowing Democrats to claim that the cap increase treats defense and non-defense equally.

A Senate agreement to raise domestic spending along with Pentagon funding would likely be met by objections from conservative House Republicans, potentially forcing House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to rely on Democratic votes to pass the measure.

House Democrats already anticipate they will have to cut short their scheduled three-day policy retreat beginning Wednesday in Cambridge, Maryland, to return to the Capitol for a second vote on the Senate version of the spending plan.

The higher spending would add to an expanding federal budget deficit that Steve Bell, a former Senate Budget Committee staff director, forecast would reach as much as US$1 trillion next year.

The budget shortfall grew to US$666 billion last fiscal year because of higher spending on Medicare, Social Security and other programs for an aging population. The gap is expected to widen further due to new tax cuts that are projected to reduce revenue by almost US$1.5 trillion over the next decade.Even as the threat of a government shutdown was ebbing in Congress, President Donald Trump was threatening to force one if Democrats refuse to meet his demands on immigration legislation.

"I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at an event with law enforcement officials to discuss MS-13, a predominantly Latino gang whose members include undocumented immigrants.

An attempt by Democrats to add deportation protections for about 700,000 young undocumented immigrants to the last spending bill led to a three-day government shutdown. But that obstacle was removed after McConnell said he'll allow the Senate to debate an immigration bill after Friday if the government remains open.


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