NEWS
12/07/2017 10:47 EST | Updated 12/07/2017 12:41 EST

GOP leaves little doubt they'll prevent government shutdown

WASHINGTON — Top Republicans left no doubt that the House will approve legislation Thursday preventing a weekend partial government shutdown, erasing any suspense over an impending budget clash that would put a calamitous exclamation point at the end of the capital's tumultuous year.

"I feel good where we are," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters hours before his chamber planned to vote on legislation keeping federal agencies afloat through Dec. 22. Their money runs out at midnight Friday without approval of fresh funding, and Senate approval was also expected.

The development came as Ryan and congressional leaders of both major parties met at the White House with President Donald Trump about the year-end agenda. They had hopes the meeting might mean progress toward a pre-Christmas agreement on a budget framework, a popular children's health program, aid to hurricane-slammed Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida — and, for Democrats and many Republicans, protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Before the meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., staked out a hard line that Democrats would insist on "a fix" for the predicament of those immigrants, called "Dreamers" by their supporters. Pelosi said, "We will not leave here" without helping the immigrants. Her stance was noteworthy because GOP leaders are likely to require Democratic votes for the pre-Christmas spending bill.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus had resisted the pending stopgap measure earlier in the week, fearing it would lead to a bad deal for conservatives down the road. But on Thursday, the group's chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said the group will likely give leaders whatever support they need to pass the legislation.

Meadows said they'll help it pass to avoid distractions from the GOP drive to push their treasured $1.5 trillion tax bill through Congress this month. That measure, which mostly benefits businesses and upper-income people, is President Donald Trump's and the GOP's top remaining priority and would be their first major legislative triumph of the year.

But hours before Trump was to bargain with congressional leaders at the White House over longer-term spending decisions, Meadows said the conservatives would oppose any agreement they feel allows excessive federal spending.

"I want to avoid a headline that says President Trump's administration just passes the highest spending levels in U.S. history," Meadows told two reporters. "There will be zero support on numbers that are too high, regardless of anybody's position on that."

He also said Ryan promised he'd fight in coming weeks to pass a full-year budget for the military and leave fights with Democrats over domestic spending for later. It is unclear how that strategy would work, since Republicans control the Senate 52-48 and will need at least eight Democratic votes to pass any spending legislation.

The prospects for successful White House talks were buffeted Wednesday when the impulsive Trump blurted to reporters that a shutdown "could happen." He blamed Democrats, saying they want "illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime."

Last week, an unexpected attack by Trump on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pelosi prompted the two to skip a bargaining session that was planned then.

This time, the White House smoothed the waters by following up with a more peaceable, written statement. It praised Pelosi and Schumer for choosing to "put their responsibility to the American people above partisanship" and said Trump was anticipating productive talks between "leaders who put their differences aside."

Later, the White House issued another statement indicating Trump would sign the two-week spending extension. It also laid out administration budget goals, saying money for the military, including missile defence and security along the border with Mexico, "must be prioritized in a long-term funding agreement."

The two-week spending bill also makes money available to several states that are running out of funds for the Children's Health Insurance Program. That widely popular program provides medical care to more than 8 million children.

While many Democrats seemed likely to oppose the short-term bill, enough were expected to support it in the Senate to allow its passage there. They know they'd still have leverage on subsequent bills needed to keep the government running.

Democrats have been using their leverage to insist on spending boosts for health care, infrastructure and other domestic programs that would match increases Republicans want for defence.

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Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.