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Congress Pushes Up Against Deadline To Keep Government Funded


On Capitol Hill lawmakers are again down to the absolute last hours on a deadline that matters. Members of Congress have been hoping to leave for the holidays by the end of this week, but before they can do that, they must pass a spending bill to keep the government open beyond this Thursday December 11. That measure was supposed to come to the House floor tomorrow, but now it looks as if it'll be the very day of the deadline. And with us now to talk about all of this is NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, what's - first of all, what's the optimistic guess on how this will play out?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: So the optimistic version of events is that Congress will wrap up everything on the spending bill the very, very last day before the government runs out of money because why should anything finish ahead of time on the Hill? So the House will be voting on the bill first. That's likely to be Thursday, as you've said. And if it does go through, that would give the Senate only a few hours to pass the measure that same day.

Now, that could theoretically happen, but it requires getting all the Senate Republicans to agree to bypass some procedural rules to fast-track it and the Senate is a funny traditional place. It only takes one senator to object to all of that and we know there's at least a small handful of Republican senators who really don't like the current version of the bill because it would fund the president's executive action on immigration, at least in the short term.

SIEGEL: OK. So this is the most optimistic version you can offer us. What if a senator wants to slow things down on Thursday? What could happen? Are we talking about another government shutdown?

CHANG: Well, there is a possible way through. Congress could pass a very short-term spending bill - like, one that literally lasts a couple of days - just to prop the government up long enough to give both chambers time to pass the larger spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already said he is ready to work through the weekend if it does come to that.

SIEGEL: Ailsa, back up a bit and tell us how some of the negotiations on this bill got stalled in the first place.

CHANG: Well, like with every spending measure, lawmakers want to stuff as many policy preferences as they can into the bill. And if you take Reid's word for it, Senate Democrats fought off at least 100 so-called riders that Republicans wanted inside the bill.


SENATOR HARRY REID: There's still factions within the Republican Party who want extreme measures. You've all heard them just like I have. In the omnibus negotiations, Republicans have targeted a few things - rights of women, health care of course, environment.

CHANG: And actually, one interesting standoff that emerged was over marijuana use in Washington, D.C. D.C. voters had passed a referendum in November that legalizes possessing and growing small amounts of pot in the district. This spending bill would prohibit federal and local funds from being used to implement that referendum, but it doesn't affect current law decriminalizing medical use of marijuana in D.C.

SIEGEL: Ailsa, tell us some of what else is in the spending bill.

CHANG: OK. So it's a $1.1 trillion measure. That's not what the entire federal budget is. Things like Social Security and Medicare are not funded by this bill. Those programs will go on regardless of what happens to this legislation. There's money in the measure to fight Ebola - about $5 billion of the more than 6 billion requested by the president. There's also money to fight the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. But none of that is that controversial.

Like I said, what's gotten a lot of conservative Republicans very angry is that this bill will fund President Obama's executive action on immigration through the first part of 2015, and they want to cut off all of that funding right now. So House Speaker John Boehner could very well be relying on Democrats to get this bill through the House this week.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.