WASHINGTON - The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to keep the government open through late November, setting up a huge showdown later this year over President Donald Trump's border wall that could force another shutdown before Thanksgiving.
The short-term nature of Thursday's legislation was the result of failed efforts to complete a broader spending package ahead of Sept. 30, when government funding is set to expire for multiple agencies. The need for the stopgap measure shows how fundamental spending issues between Democrats and Republicans remain unresolved, even though lawmakers believed they had dispatched the thorniest problems in a sweeping budget deal completed over the summer.
To buy themselves more time to negotiate, lawmakers decided to delay the tougher decisions for two months. The legislation passed Thursday by the House would keep government spending flowing through Nov. 21. The vote was 301 to 123.
The Senate is scheduled to pass the measure next week with just days to spare ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, and Trump is expected to sign it into law.
Trump's presidency has been marked by a number of stopgap spending bills that either keep levels flat or ratchet them higher. The White House has called for deep spending cuts on education, housing and foreign aid programs, among others. But Trump has also insisted on a bigger budget for defense and money to build a wall along the Mexico border. Democrats have fought back, leading to numerous compromises that have continued to add billions of dollars in new spending each year.
Major differences between the parties remain, though, particularly over whether taxpayers should finance construction of a border wall and whether Congress should agree to a demand from Democrats to direct more money for health programs, among other things.
There's scant reason to believe lawmakers will reach resolution on these issues by Nov. 21, and many are already discussing the need to pass another short-term spending bill before Thanksgiving.
At the core of the dispute: Senate Democrats' assertions that Republicans are diverting money to Trump's southern border wall that should be going toward domestic programs. Republicans deny the claims, but Democrats are blocking action on spending bills for the Pentagon and other agencies as they press their complaints.
And some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, are already predicting that they are going to end up right where they were last winter. Lawmakers rejected Trump's demand for taxpayer money to build a border wall in December, triggering a partial government shutdown.
"It's hard for me to understand how the Republicans think this is going to play out differently than it did last year," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Some Republicans are similarly pessimistic about the trajectory Congress is on, even while insisting that this time a shutdown will somehow be avoided.
"We're going to extend it till the day before Thanksgiving break - surprise, surprise," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus. "And then we're going to extend it till the day before the Christmas break - surprise, surprise. And then we're going to end up putting bad things in a bill that supposedly was agreed to months ago."
Despite the challenges of divided government, there was a breakthrough in July when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., struck a deal with the Trump administration to set overall spending levels for 2020 and 2021, and to suspend the federal debt ceiling until after the 2020 election.
The deal was supposed to reduce the threat of a shutdown by making it easier for spending committees to write appropriations bills, because topline numbers had been set. But the current spending struggle in the Senate has raised the possibility that even with the budget deal in place, lawmakers might be unable to agree on how to dole out about $1.4 trillion across the Pentagon and federal agencies for 2020.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters Thursday that without an agreement reached, it's possible that the full budget year would have to be funded by a year-long "continuing resolution" that keeps existing spending levels in place.
"We're at a crossroads right now," Shelby said. "I don't know what'll happen."
Shelby's committee approved several less controversial spending bills on Thursday, and one possibility is that legislation funding some portions of the government could pass even if negotiations drag on over contentious issues such as the wall.
Lawmakers said moving beyond the current impasse will require high-level bipartisan and bicameral negotiations that have yet to begin in earnest. In one sign of progress, however, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Thursday that he had spoken with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and expressed optimism about chances for progress.
"I think that's more theater than anything. I think we'll get it done," McCarthy said of disputes in the Senate.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and others insisted that it was incumbent on Congress to get the job done.
"There is no reason in God's green earth we cannot complete our business on the appropriations process by November 21. Not a single reason, except procrastination and an unwillingness to compromise," Hoyer said.
This article was written by Erica Werner, a reporter for The Washington Post.