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With 2 days to keep the government open, no one seems to know what’s going on

After voting for the tax bill, Sen. Susan Collins now says Obamacare stabilization bills can wait.

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheons Al Drago/Getty Images

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was promised two Obamacare stabilization bills by the end of the year to secure her vote on the GOP tax bill. Now, on the same day Republicans send that bill to the White House, it looks like she’ll get neither — for now.

It all comes down to an intraparty struggle among Republicans over how to keep the federal government open. Republicans have spent the past months focusing on their tax bill, leaving an unruly and growing list of unfinished business by the wayside. Now they have until midnight on Friday to reach a spending agreement with Democrats to keep the government from shutting down. No one can say with certainty what that plan is.

Collins had assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump that Congress would pass two Obamacare stabilization bills by the end of the year in exchange for her vote on GOP tax bill. The conventional wisdom was that these bills, among other priorities like disaster relief funding, and funding for the lapsed Children’s Health Insurance Program, would be attached to the must-pass spending agreement at the end of the year.

But the idea was met with fierce pushback from House Republicans, many of whom felt it was not the Senate’s place to make promises for the House about Obamacare subsidies.

“Look, the principle that our body the House, which is closer to the people, owes Collins a vote — no, we didn’t agree to that vote,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “When one person has leverage over the House, the Senate, and the American people, something is wrong with your Democratic system.”

Now Collins has folded.

“We have asked Sen. McConnell not to offer this week our legislation which independent analysts Avalere and Oliver-Wyman say would reduce premiums by about 20 percent for the 9 million Americans who have no government subsidies to help them buy insurance in the individual market,” Collins said in a joint statement with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who co-sponsored one of the bills. Instead, they said, the bills would be brought up next year.

The reversal might give Republicans some peace of mind for now, but it only escalates negotiations down the road, as Congress attempts to punt legislative priorities into the new year.

House Republicans had no “appetite” for passing an Obamacare stabilization package

Collins said on Wednesday that Congress would wait until next year to fund the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies, payments the federal government sends to insurance companies to subsidize copayments and deductibles for low-income enrollees, and a reinsurance program, which would help offset costly insurance premiums.

The decision came after it became clear there’s no “appetite” among House Republicans to pass either Obamacare stabilization bill, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who holds a highly coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Cole’s frustration indicates the delay is not just pushback from the conservative fringes, who have long decried propping up Obamacare. Cole is close to leadership and has accepted plenty of less than favorable spending deals in his career.

“It would be a big point of contention,” he said, adding that attaching CSRs to the spending bill on its own would be a nonstarter for him.

Collins said she received a phone call from House Speaker Paul Ryan giving her assurances that the House would take up the two bills in 2018, but there’s no certainty what could happen down the road.

There’s still a lot of unfinished business at the end of the year, and while Republicans have the majority in both the House and Senate, Democrats have some leverage to push their policy priorities.

The Senate needs to win at least eight Democrats to pass a government spending bill and avert shutdown — and they have a lot of legislative priorities they’d like to use their leverage on, from protections for immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to disaster relief funding and money for the opioid epidemic.

With two days to keep the government open, it’s all up in the air

As of noon on Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats still hadn’t reached a consensus on how to keep the government open. They’ve agreed to pass a stopgap funding measure — a continuing resolution — which would fund the government at current levels through to the new year, so lawmakers have more time to negotiate an actual spending bill.

But the drama is over which legislative priorities will be attached to the budget resolution — if any.

Democrats are racking up a long list of priorities.

  • Democrats want to pass the DREAM Act, offering protections for immigrants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump is sunsetting.
  • After Trump said he would stop paying Obamacare subsidies, which will make premiums go up for middle- and higher-income people, Democrats said they would use the spending bills to push funding CSRs.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired in September, and Democrats say they want to use a spending deadline to renew that program too.
  • After wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, there’s an $81 billion disaster relief package in the works.

Democrats have already secured some wins through the budget process. Earlier this year, top Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on a spending bill for 2017 that nearly half the GOP conference hated. It didn’t fund Trump’s border wall, and it kept out provisions that would defund Planned Parenthood paired with increases in defense and border security funding.

Already there are reports that Democrats might concede to a clean budget resolution this time around, and push for their priorities when Congress passes a full spending bill in January. That would go against a lot of commitments they’ve made so far.

Meanwhile, Republicans appear to be announcing decisions on Democrats’ priorities without them. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said a deal on DACA would be on the floor in January, Collins says CSRs would come in the new year, and there’s talk of passing a relief package on its own.

In short, there have been a lot of mixed messages, and nothing has been decided.

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