2 new faces and old partisan standoffs as Congress returns
WASHINGTON (AP) -- There will be two fresh Senate faces and some familiar but stubborn clashes facing lawmakers Wednesday as Congress begins its 2018 session staring at the year's first potential calamity -- an election-year government shutdown unless there's a bipartisan spending pact by Jan. 19.
Looking to prevent a closure of federal agencies, top White House officials planned to meet at the Capitol Wednesday with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and each chamber's top Democrat.
Their goal is to find a compromise on raising limits on defense and domestic spending that eluded lawmakers before they left Washington for the holidays. In a statement Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump wants a two-year pact "that provides realistic budget caps and provides certainty for our national security," suggesting he was open to a bargain.
In one complication, Democrats have linked closure on the budget to protecting from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. Both parties have been divided over the so-called Dreamers.
Parachuting into all this is a Democratic duo whose Senate arrivals are extraordinary.
Alabama's Doug Jones narrowly upended Roy Jones, the polarizing Republican, in a special election last month to become the first Senate Democrat in a quarter-century from one of the nation's reddest states. Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith will replace Democrat Al Franken, the one-time TV comedian who was becoming one of his party's most familiar liberal voices but resigned after a succession of sexual harassment accusations. His last day in Congress was Tuesday.
Both new lawmakers will be sworn into office when the Senate gavels into session Wednesday. The House is not returning until next week.
Crunching budget caps imposed by a 2011 fiscal deal will freeze spending for the Pentagon and nondefense Cabinet departments at last year's levels unless they're increased. Republicans are in control but need Democratic votes to boost the caps, a priority of the GOP and members of both parties who want additional spending for domestic programs like curbing opioid abuse.
A temporary spending bill expires Jan. 19 and federal agencies will begin closing their doors the next day, unless there's a budget pact or an agreement to keep talking. Defense Secretary James Mattis has told lawmakers the Pentagon needs a full-year budget this month. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, concurred Tuesday in an interview, saying he was "trying to think of a word that adequately describes how vital" that is.
Even so, opposition is likely among many GOP conservatives. Democrats want increases in defense to be matched with nondefense hikes.
The statement by the White House's Sanders called a budget deal "our biggest and number one priority."
Democrats have split over how far to push for legislation protecting Dreamers. Activists and some lawmakers have said they are willing to force a shutdown unless it is addressed, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote to colleagues Tuesday that she is "firmly committed" to quickly enacting protections.
More than a dozen Hispanic Democratic House members forced a meeting late last month with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said Schumer assured the group that Democrats "will lay it all on the line" to protect the immigrants when Congress returns.
Trump has rescinded an executive order by former President Barack Obama that gave the Dreamers protected status. Trump gave lawmakers until March to reach a legislative solution and has indicated a willingness to seek a deal with Democrats.
But he's taken a harder line recently. He tweeted Tuesday that Democrats "are doing nothing" on immigration and are "just interested in politics." Days earlier, he said there would be no deal without demands, including money for the wall he has proposed along the Mexican border. Democrats have said they're open to border security financing but not a wall.
Before the holiday break, McConnell told reporters he'll bring immigration legislation to the Senate floor if a bipartisan group of senators reach agreement.
Trump, Ryan and McConnell will meet at Camp David this weekend to discuss legislative plans.
It's unclear how much can be achieved in an election year in which Democrats have a chance to win congressional control. Ryan has talked up culling savings from benefit programs like welfare, but McConnell has shown little enthusiasm for that in a chamber he'll control by just 51-49 and would need a virtually unattainable nine Democratic votes to prevail.
The two parties have suggested pushing a mammoth infrastructure bill, but Democrats haven't supported GOP ideas of financing it by cutting other programs.
Both parties are also interested in renewing expired financing for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which helps provide care for nearly 9 million low-income children. Also possible: revamping Obama's law overhauling financial market regulations; shoring up Obama's health care overhaul; and renewing a foreign intelligence gathering program.
The House approved $81 billion before adjourning last month but the Senate is eying an even more. Democrats want additional aid for Puerto Rico, where only about half of the territory has electricity months after Hurricane Maria slammed it. The powerful Texas delegation wants greater guarantees their state will get recovery funds and money for water projects.
Associated Press wriers Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.