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These spending bill sticking points are making lawmakers scramble to avert another shutdown

Congress is negotiating a $1.3 trillion government spending bill before a Friday deadline, but a local transportation in New York and New Jersey has become a major sticking point. Special correspondent David Cruz of NJTV reports, then Lisa Desjardins joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what’s in the bill now and what outstanding issues must be resolved.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As Congress negotiates a $1.3 trillion government spending bill before a Friday night deadline, a local transportation project in New York and New Jersey is causing a major holdup in the process.

    David Cruz of member station NJTV reports.

  • David Cruz:

    When Sandy, a once-in-a-lifetime super storm, slammed into New York and New Jersey in 2012, it caused historic damage to the region's infrastructure, including the Hudson River tunnels.

    But even before Sandy struck, Amtrak, whose critical Northeast Corridor service from D.C. to Boston is dependent on the aging infrastructure, had begun planning for the Gateway Project, a $29 billion plan to replace the existing tunnels, and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, which feeds almost 500 trains into and out of those tunnels every day.

    Leaders from New York, New Jersey and the Obama administration all agreed to share the cost of the project. Late last year, a bipartisan show of support, as leaders broke ground on the $1.5 billion Portal Bridge project. But soon thereafter, it all began to fall apart. No one is exactly sure why.

    Most speculate a personal feud with New York Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, but the president announced in December that he wouldn't support funding for Gateway, and the $900 million down payment became a sticking point in the current omnibus spending bill negotiations.

    Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao pushed back against lawmakers trying to pin the administration down on funding.

  • Elaine Chao:

    A campaign is being waged in the public arena to bully the department to pressure the federal government to fund these projects.

  • Man:

    Do you think the Gateway Project is a good idea?

  • Elaine Chao:

    We are not arguing about whether this project should go forward.

  • David Cruz:

    New Jersey Senator Cory Booker says it could lead to an economic cataclysm if one or both of the current tunnels has to be taken out of service.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    If the country is the body, the jugular vein, when it comes to transportation, is the Northeast Corridor. It's right here, running through our state. To cut, to sever the jugular here would cause undue damage to the entire country.

  • David Cruz:

    Last Friday, the Portal Bridge got stuck again, causing a massive, hours-long rush hour backups of New Jersey transit and Amtrak trains.

    For supporters of the project — and that's all of New Jersey's Republican congressmen, including the chairman of the appropriations committee, Rodney Frelinghuysen, it was right on cue.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm David Cruz in Kearny, New Jersey.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Gateway Project is just one sticking point in the frantic negotiations on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers scramble to avert a third government shutdown this year.

    Lisa Desjardins has been following the negotiations, and joins me now.

    Let's talk big picture. Omnibus, we hear it every one in a while. why does it matter?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, first of all, this is a monster bill that I think has been of the radar, probably because Congress makes it seem very complicated , but actually it's very simple.

    So, here we go. Let's do an omnibus appropriation 101, Hari.

    Omnibus, it's a noun from Latin. It's basically a sweeping bill. It combines every congressional spending bill in one. Now, this year's bill is expected to be 1.2 trillion — with a T — dollars.

    And, Hari, it's important especially because this is going to include a large spending increase, one of the largest in recent times. And more than anything, also, Hari, this bill is seen as possibly, very probably the last major bill this Congress will pass.

    It's only March, but that means if you want to get anything else done, people are trying to stack it into this bill.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Big, complicated things, like immigration. We even saw a roundtable today about sanctuary cities. They were trying to figure out if there was legislation they could get into this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    As late as this weekend, Hari, the president was trying to get a deal over DACA and his border wall into this bill. He wanted border wall money in exchange for a temporary DACA fix. Democrats say that's not good enough, and it looks like neither of those things will be in this bill. That means DACA could remain in limbo for quite some time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What else is at stake?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    Let's talk about guns. That's a very important topic, especially right now. There is a bill called Fix NICS that would shore up the background check system. It has 76 sponsors in the Senate, if the Republicans wanted that in this omnibus bill.

    But, right now, it's on the ropes. It's not clear it will go in because conservatives want other things as well on guns. How about also health care? Many Republicans in a bipartisan effort want to try and bring back those subsidies for insurers and insurance that they think will stabilize the market.

    That's something on the table right now, but it also looks like it might not make the bill because of a debate over abortion and how those subsidies pay for or don't pay for abortion coverage. Guns and also health care, if they don't make this bill, those are two issues that may not see the light of day again this year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about how agencies are funded, because it's part of it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right. That's a huge, huge issue.

    In fact, this will be one of the largest spending increases, as I said, that we have seen in years. Who gets that money? Which agencies and what do they use it for? Some of it, we know, $6 billion for opioids, for the opioid crisis. Where does that go exactly? We're waiting to find out.

    And then will any agencies see cuts, even in this year of a spending increase? Republicans want to cut some things. We don't know, because, Hari, we still haven't seen the bill.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, let's talk a little bit about a timeline here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Who is going to see — who knows what's in the bill now, and who will know what's in it by the time they actually pull…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm going to check my phone and see what e-mails I have gotten in the last two minutes, because there was a meeting at 1:00 today among staffers for the big four leaders in Congress.

    They have been meeting since 1:00. They haven't finished meeting. That is the only group that knows what's in this bill, including chairmen and chairwomen of these committees don't know what's decided yet.

    So, right now, they're trying to finalize the outstanding issues, some of which we just talked about. They want to do it by midnight tonight. That would allow the House to live by its own rules and vote Thursday. They like to have technically three days to vote.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sure.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, right now, Hari, very few people know what is in this bill. And we're sort of in the outer zones. It's a massive bill, still not written.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes. So, really, the only time that legislators are going to be informed on this is, let's say, sometime before midnight tonight, when it hits the system. They're going to have read what…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A thousand pages.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A thousand pages, figure out if they're for it or against it, or we head for another government shutdown?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    Well, there's a possibility. That's right. They need to get this bill done by Friday night. And that's when the government funding would run out. That's possible. The House votes Thursday, the Senate Friday. If they don't make it, they will pass probably another short-term spending bill and maybe work this weekend. But it's very much a matter of stay tuned.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Lisa Desjardins, thanks so much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sure thing.

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