White House, congressional leaders open talks on spending

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WASHINGTON (AP) Top White House officials and congressional leaders from both parties touched gloves Wednesday in the Capitol to try to make progress on a stack of unfinished Washington business, starting with a hoped-for bipartisan budget deal.

The session in the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan came with little more than two weeks before the next threatened government shutdown. Topping the agenda was an effort to spare both the Pentagon and domestic Cabinet agencies from spending cuts. Neither White House representative, budget director Mick Mulvaney, nor top legislative strategist Marc Short, commented on their way in.

The budget debate has been roiled by a demand from Democrats that nondefense programs win increases equal to those to be awarded to the Pentagon. That was a feature of prior budget pacts in 2013 and 2015 that were negotiated during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.

Now, with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Republicans insist that this idea of parity between guns and butter belongs on the scrap heap.

"We need to set aside the arbitrary notion that new defense spending be matched equally by new non-defense spending," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "There is no reason why funding for our national security and our service members should be limited by an arbitrary political formula that bears no relationship to actual need."

But unlike the recently passed tax bill and the GOP's failed efforts to repeal the Obama-era health care law, the upcoming agenda will require votes from Democrats. But bipartisanship has been in scarce supply under Trump, and heading into the session, spokesmen for neither Ryan nor top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York were banking on a breakthrough.

The budget battle is but one element of a tricky Washington matrix facing the White House, its GOP allies, and Democratic rivals like Schumer.

Particularly challenging is the question of immigrants, known as Dreamers to their advocates, who were brought to the country illegally as children but face deportation in March because of Trump's decision to strip away Obama-issued protections for them.

Democrats say they won't go along with any deal on the budget until Dreamers are guaranteed protections. That has sparked pushback from GOP leaders who have refused to cede leverage to Democrats and insist on dealing with politically nettlesome immigration issues on a separate track.

"The president has been very clear that this is an important issue that he wants Congress to deal with," Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said of immigration. "Our leadership's made it clear, and I agree with them, that this is not something that is negotiated as part of a spending package, but it is a separate issue that should merit debate and discussion aside from the spending discussion."

Less partisan is a leftover disaster aid bill and renewal of a children's health insurance program that has sweeping bipartisan backing.

"I hope this year can be one of bipartisanship focused on improving the stock of the middle class," Schumer said. "We can start on the budget, with opioids, and veterans' health care and pensions. With children's health insurance and disaster aid. And we can resolve the fate of the Dreamers, and say to these hardworking kids that America has a place for them, too."

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