How the Wall, Guns, and Obamacare Fared in Congress’ Giant Spending Bill

It’s a mixed bag.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony at the U.S. Capitol March 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. Members of Congress presented members of the O.S.S. with the the highest award given by Congress 'in honor of the members of the Office of Strategic Services for their historic contributions during World War II.'  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s taken them several crucial days longer than they had hoped, but Democratic and Republican leaders on Wednesday closed in on an agreement to fund the government through September at the higher spending levels they set last month. The omnibus spending bill, the last big “must-pass” bill of the year, is a vehicle for legislators to tack on all of their other legislative priorities that they couldn’t get through regular order. If they’re not included in this $1.3 trillion beast, most of them will wither away as Congress enters election season.

The deal was officially wrapped up late Wednesday as leaders applied finishing touches. If they’re lucky, lawmakers may even have a few seconds to read the most important legislation of the year—much of which was negotiated privately at the leadership level—before voting on it.

There will be no broad immigration deal to resolve the fate of Dreamers, border security, and legal immigration. A last-minute volley of offers between the White House and Democratic leaders proved fruitless, largely due to the White House and Democrats having diametrically opposed views on American immigration policy. As a result, the White House won’t get its $25 billion request for border wall funding, and Democrats won’t be able to secure a path to citizenship for Dreamers. The fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries remains mired in the legal system indefinitely.

The administration will, however, get some physical barrier money—about $1.6 billion—which is described quite differently depending on which party you ask.

A senior GOP aide said “this amount provides for more than 90 miles of ‘border wall system,’ going beyond the administration’s budget request for 74 miles in fiscal year 2018.” That 90-mile figure contains replacement fencing and levee improvement, though. A Democratic source said that the bill will only allow for 33 miles of new physical barrier and emphasized that it would be fencing or current barrier technology—“NOT concrete wall” or any of those flashy prototypes Trump recently fawned over during a trip. Another 14 miles would go toward secondary barriers near San Diego, and 45 miles worth of replacement fencing would be available elsewhere.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, said Wednesday that the deal has funds for “more than 100 miles of new construction for the border wall.” Rounding those 92 miles up to a nice, round 100 might have been what it took to bring President Trump, who was reportedly upset at the lack of wall funding in the deal, on board.

There will also be no section shoring up Obamacare’s individual insurance markets, and members on both sides are mad about that. The dispute that precluded an agreement revolved, in large part, around abortion. Republicans demanded an expansion of the Hyde amendment—which prohibits federal money being spent on abortion—to cover individual insurance markets. Such an expansion is a non-starter for Democrats, but it’s a must-have for Republicans, in order to provide cover for members skittish about voting to “prop up” Obamacare. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Republicans raged over Democrats’ opposition to the Hyde language, claiming they were overstating its effects to maintain the election-year narrative that Republicans are “sabotaging” health insurance markets and causing higher premiums.

“This is phony,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “I hope you lose votes, I hope you lose seats, you’re not worthy of governing this place.”

There is one sensitive policy area, though, where it appears negotiators have been able to reach a modest accord: guns.

It shouldn’t be surprising a bill to improve the background check system, which more than three-fourths of the United States Senate is co-sponsoring, will find its way into law. And yet, it is. The omnibus will include the Fix NICS bill, which incentivizes better reporting of information in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. There will also be additional money for school safety, similar to a bill introduced by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. In an extra boost for Democrats, who didn’t think that Fix NICS alone was enough of a response to Parkland, language will be added to the Dickey amendment clarifying that it doesn’t bar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence.

One gun measure that will not be in the omnibus is the National Rifle Association’s top legislative priority this Congress: concealed-carry reciprocity. House Republicans had logrolled concealed-carry reciprocity and Fix NICS together, and conservatives, particularly in the Freedom Caucus, will be furious that their leaders acceded to this uncoupling. But guess what? When you have two parties from which to draw votes, the opinion of a 40-person bloc of members on the right end of the spectrum doesn’t matter.

One of the stickiest issues throughout the process has been the Gateway Program, a plan to improve the Hudson River tunnel connections between New York and New Jersey. President Trump issued a rare and unwavering veto threat against inclusion of appropriations for this project—a move that was to either secure leverage over, or simply annoy, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Though there will be no direct appropriation, a Democratic aide argues that the bill will boost enough accounts, like Amtrak’s, to provide $540 million in funding for the project not subject to administrative approval

The bill will also fix a major screw-up within Republicans’ recently passed tax bill. Known as the “grain glitch,” the tax law inadvertently gave farming cooperatives a lopsided competitive advantage over agriculture companies. Democrats, after years of watching Republicans not only sit on their hands over technical problems within Obamacare but take those technical problems to the Supreme Court as a strategy for collapsing the entire law, were not inclined to help Republicans without a price. After dragging their feet over the last few days, Republicans appear to have agreed to some expansion of the low-income housing tax credit in exchange for the fix, though leaders were still finalizing the deal Wednesday afternoon.

The main selling point for Republicans will be the major increase in military spending, which fulfills one of Trump’s key promises during the presidential campaign to “rebuild the military.” It will come as no surprise that the messaging for the bill, both in private and in public, from Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week has revolved around that issue. They would prefer not to talk about all of the domestic spending increases they had to concede in order to secure it.

Elsewhere, the usual conservative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and “sanctuary cities” didn’t make the cut. Hundreds of millions of additional dollars will allocated to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and states, respectively, for counterintelligence efforts to stop Russian intervention in the 2018 midterms and to secure state election systems. A down payment of $10 billion toward new infrastructure spending will be included, as well as billions to combat the opioid epidemic.

This should go down the way secretively written, lengthy, expensive omnibus packages usually do: with lots of bitching from various ideological corners, and maybe an hourlong shutdown from Sen. Rand Paul, until it passes comfortably and everyone flies home for the two-week recess.