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Another Shutdown Showdown: Congress Scrambles to Tie Up Year-End Business

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON – It’s crunch time on Capitol Hill again and, as usual, the situation isn’t very pretty.

Lawmakers are still finagling over a spending package that will take the federal government, if not to the end of the current fiscal year, to a point where offices can remain open beyond the Christmas-New Year’s holiday.

Otherwise action in the session’s final month already is underway hot-and-heavy. House and Senate Republicans are, of course, carrying on their time-honored tradition of trying to kill Obamacare. The Senate, for the first time, passed and sent to the House a measure that repeals most of the provisions, although a veto is certain. After any number of false starts, the two chambers finally agreed and sent to President Obama a long-awaited transportation measure and, in wake of the recent tragedies in San Bernardino, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo., Republicans beat back efforts by Senate Democrats to toughen the nation’s gun laws.

But agreement on financing the government remains.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said the GOP Senate has been “working hard to get Congress back to work over the past year” with some success. With time running short, the upper chamber is preparing to send “two very significant bipartisan bills” to President Obama’s desk — the multiyear highway bill and a replacement for the No Child Left Behind law passed during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

“These are the latest examples of a new Congress that is back to work on behalf of the American people,” McConnell said. “They are hardly the only examples we will be talking about.”

McConnell also noted that the Senate has moved “another important issue that languished for too long but passed the new Senate” dealing with cyber security that already has received White House support.

“I am glad that the new, more open, and more inclusive Republican Senate made their cooperation possible because even though the old forces of gridlock tried to trip that bill up several times along the way, we kept moving forward, and we always knew we were doing the right thing for the American people,” McConnell said.

The Republican leader said he hopes to get the bill quickly into conference and sent to the president’s desk in something close to its current form because “the challenges posed by cyber-attacks are real and they are growing.”

“A cyber-attack can be a deeply invasive attack on personal privacy. The voluntary information sharing provisions in the bill we passed are key to defeating cyberattacks and protecting the personal information of the people we represent.”

But in patting himself on the back, McConnell failed to cite some of the pending problems and issues that might not be so easily resolved. After this week, the House is scheduled to meet for only eight more legislative days before departing on Dec. 18, thus ending the first session of the 114th Congress. Some quick agreements will prove necessary.

Over in the House, for instance, Republicans and Democrats are wrangling over proposed policy riders – more than 30 in all — to spending legislation that the GOP majority hopes to carry the government through Sept. 30 of next year.

Time is of the essence since the stop-gap measure, adopted just as former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned and was replaced by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), expires on Dec. 11, leaving little room for dallying.

Three of the most hotly contested additions sought by Republicans in the lower chamber would roll back regulations empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions, particularly from power plants. The GOP also wants to enhance the screening of Syrian refugees in wake of the terrorist shootings in Paris last month.

The majority also is looking to institute new rules scaling back the Wall Street reforms enacted after the economic meltdown in 2008.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, already has stated the proposed environmental changes are non-starters.

“Confronting the climate crisis is one of the most urgent challenges facing America,” Pelosi said. “By willfully ignoring the reality of the climate crisis, House Republicans are endangering the air we breathe and the future our children will inherit.”

Regardless, Obama is likely to veto a spending bill that includes any of these provisions, setting the stage for yet another high-noon duel with the possibility of yet another governmental shutdown lurking in the background.

But House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, publicly downplayed shutdown possibilities and characterized the rhetoric surrounding the spending bill as both sides establishing their negotiating positions.

One sign that Republicans are willing to play ball – at least to a limited degree – is that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood look to be, at this juncture, off the table. Conservatives had sought an end to federal dollars flowing to the national women’s health organization in wake of undercover tapes that appeared to show officials negotiating over the sale of fetal tissue recovered from abortions for research. The claim was hotly denied and Republicans now appear to be backing off in wake of the Colorado Springs clinic shooting.

And it appears Republicans are willing to negotiate over the Syrian refugee issue, looking to simply institute a pause in the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. The House will almost certainly look to strengthen the U.S. visa waiver program.

“Right now, the visa waiver program deals with 38 countries, many of them within Europe,” McCarthy said. “But there are a lot of gaps and vulnerabilities. We currently have about 5,000 — those who have passports in Europe in this program — that have traveled to Iraq or Syria. So the gaps in there are, one, does every country have a passport that has biometrics? Are they reporting any lost or stolen passports to Interpol because these people are not being interviewed when they are able to come to America and stay here 90 days. And anybody who has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last five years should not be able to just do online and come to America.”

Meanwhile, the Senate is likely going to move ahead with efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and kill off Obamacare – using a budget procedure known as reconciliation to keep Democrats from instituting a filibuster. That means the measures will require only 51 votes apiece.

But the effort will end there. Obama will veto any measure that crosses his desk that seeks to achieve either goal and any effort to override such a veto, which requires 67 votes, is a near impossibility.