WASHINGTON - The House took an initial step Tuesday toward averting another government shutdown this week, but further progress hung on whether top leaders could finalize a sweeping deal to deliver the defense spending boost President Donald Trump has long demanded alongside an increase in domestic programs championed by Democrats.
Government funding is set to expire at midnight Thursday, raising the possibility of a second partial shutdown in less than a month. The House bill, which passed 245 to 182, would fund most agencies through March 23.
That bill is a nonstarter in the Senate because of Democratic opposition. But the top Senate leaders of both parties told reporters earlier in the day that a breakthrough was at hand on a longer-term budget deal. Spending has vexed the Republican-controlled Congress for months, forcing lawmakers to rely on multiple short-term patches.
"We're on the way to getting an agreement and on the way to getting an agreement very soon," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., echoed him, "I am very hopeful that we can come to an agreement, an agreement very soon."
Despite the optimism, no agreement was finalized with less than three days until Thursday's deadline. And even as congressional leaders were sounding an upbeat note, Trump was raising tensions by openly pondering a shutdown if Democrats did not agree to his immigration policies.
"I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at a White House event focused on crime threats posed by some immigrants. "If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety . . . let's shut it down."
Trump's remarks appeared unlikely to snuff out the negotiations, which mainly involved top congressional leaders and their aides - not the president or his White House deputies - and have largely steered clear of the explosive immigration issue.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon that Trump was not pushing for the inclusion of immigration policies in the budget accord, something that would upend the sensitive talks.
"I don't think that we expect the budget deal to include specifics on the immigration reform," she said. "But we want to get a deal on that."
The agreement McConnell and Schumer are contemplating, with input from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would clear the way for a bipartisan accord that would break through the sharp divides that helped prompt a three-day government shutdown last month.
Under tentative numbers discussed by congressional aides who were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations, defense spending would get an $80 billion boost above the existing $549 billion in spending for 2018. Nondefense spending would rise by $63 billion from its current $516 billion. The 2019 budget would include similar increases.
"Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear," Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "We support an increase in funding for our military and our middle class. The two are not mutually exclusive. We don't want to do just one and leave the other behind."
Among the other issues that could be addressed in the deal is an increase in the federal debt limit, which could be reached as soon as early March, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The aides said that an increase was being discussed in the negotiations but that no final decisions have been made.
"It's a question of what the traffic will bear," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 3 Senate GOP leader, describing the likelihood of a debt-ceiling increase.
A disaster aid package aimed at the victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires is also part of the talks, potentially adding $80 billion or more to the deal's overall price tag. That provision could help win support from lawmakers representing affected areas in California, Florida and Texas but further repel conservatives concerned about mounting federal spending.
Even the rumors of a coming deal were enough to send some hard-liners reeling.
"This is a bad, bad, bad, bad - you could say 'bad' a hundred times - deal," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. "When you put it all together, a quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar increase in discretionary spending - not what we're supposed to be doing."
If the parties cannot reach an agreement in the next two days, it is unclear how a shutdown might be averted.
Multiple House Republicans said Tuesday that if the Senate takes their spending bill and substitutes its version with a significant boost for domestic programs, they could not vote for it. House Democrats, meanwhile, have showed only limited willingness to help pass temporary spending measures absent a broader agreement.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the Freedom Caucus chairman, said a broad deal encompassing a debt-limit increase and a huge disaster package would be "considered a lead balloon" among hard-line conservatives. "It'd get zero support" from the caucus, he said, aside from a member or two representing states affected by the disasters.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Congress should "not let disagreements on domestic policy continue to hold our nation's defense hostage." He warned that a failure to pass long-term funding would imperil troop paychecks, inhibit the maintenance of planes and ships, stunt recruiting and otherwise harm military readiness.
"To carry out the strategy you rightly directed we develop, we need you to pass a budget now," he said.
The House bill would increase Pentagon funding to $584 billion and guarantee it through Sept. 30, while the rest of the government would continue to be funded at 2017 levels through March 23.
The bill would also provide two years of funding for the federal community health-center program, which lapsed last year and is at risk of running out of spending authority, and it would extend several other programs.
The bill also would affect many other moving parts in the health-care system. It would postpone planned cuts in funding to hospitals that treat an especially large share of poor patients, eliminating reductions in "disproportionate share" payments for this year and 2019 and shifting the $6 billion in reductions to 2021 through 2023.
The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.