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Congress Is Facing A Year-End Fiscal Crunch


Republicans in Congress are trying to pass a final tax bill and avoid a government shutdown. But it is not working out as easily as party leaders had hoped. With us from the Capitol to talk about this is congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hey, Sue.


MCEVERS: OK, this is a question I know you get asked a lot...

DAVIS: I'm ready for it.

MCEVERS: ...On every NPR program. I'm going to ask it again. How likely is a government shutdown this week?

DAVIS: And here's an answer I end up giving a lot.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

DAVIS: There's a fast deadline approaching of midnight Friday, and there is no agreement in sight. House Republican leaders had wanted to pass as early as tomorrow a short-term funding bill that would run for about two weeks to December 22 with the goal of just buying Congress more time to figure out the negotiations on the tax bill and reach an agreement on what the spending levels for the federal government should be. Congress still needs to do that before the end of the year. And then they hit a bump.

A group of hardline conservatives in the House known as the Freedom Caucus are saying they could withhold their votes. They could vote against that stopgap spending bill, threatening a shutdown. And in exchange, they're trying to get some concessions from their leaderships to say that at the end of the year, they're not going to get jammed with a bunch of legislation they don't support because frankly that is what Congress tends to do when it's the last votes out of town before the Christmas holiday.

MCEVERS: Well, what are these conservatives concerned about?

DAVIS: They have a lot of concerns. They focus mainly on three things. One, they're really worried about this deal that they need to reach on spending levels - is going to raise domestic spending too much. That's what Democrats want. They don't like that. They just want more money for defense, though it's important to note that they're going to need Democrats to pass any spending level deal, so they can't cut them out.

There's also concern that they're going to reach a deal to pass immigration legislation specifically affecting what we call the DREAMers, the people who were brought here illegally as children who are now existing in this sort of legal limbo. They do not want that to happen, but there are talks in the Senate ongoing. That's a huge question mark for what Congress is going to do.

And they really do not want to vote on any health care legislation. There were promises made to Maine Senator Susan Collins last week during that tax debate to get her vote in which she was told that Congress would pass two companion pieces of legislation that would essentially prop up the individual health care market because remember; the underlying tax bill effectively ends that individual mandate.

MCEVERS: OK, so if the House doesn't vote on those health care bills, does that mean Susan Collins could then vote against the final tax bill?

DAVIS: It could. And she has said that those votes are conditional to her support for the tax bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised her both publicly and privately that Congress will vote on those bills before the end of this year. And I saw her in the hallway today, and I asked her if the speaker had given her similar assurances that the House would vote. And this is what she told me.

SUSAN COLLINS: I have had three conversations with the president of the United States about this, and I think he has quite a bit of influence with the House members.

DAVIS: And she has a point. If President Trump comes out and says, look, guys; you need to do this to get the tax bill done, they will likely follow suit.

MCEVERS: All right, there's a big meeting at the White House this week with the big four, the top Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. I mean, how big of a role does President Trump play in these negotiations?

DAVIS: This is really critical. This is when presidential leadership really kicks in at these end-of-the-year negotiations. They need the White House to sign off on these spending levels or any immigration or health care deals because Republicans aren't going to bring to the bill - to floor any bills that won't be signed into law.

And that's what - important part to remember here in these negotiations, is that Democrats really do pay - play a role. In order to get any of this done, they need bipartisan compromise in the Senate. Otherwise, Democrats could threaten a filibuster and block all of this. And that generally falls on the president to try and figure out what that sweet spot is and then to bring his own party onboard. So that is the challenge for President Trump in all of this.

MCEVERS: NPR congressional reporter Sue Davis, thank you very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.