By Richard Cowan | WASHINGTON
WASHINGTON The U.S. Congress inched toward a deal to fund the government through September but was preparing to possibly extend a midnight Friday deadline in order to wrap up negotiations and avoid an imminent government shutdown.
The one-week extension would give leading Republicans and Democrats "a little breathing room" to finish their negotiations and present their plan for spending around $1 trillion through the rest of the fiscal year to rank-and-file lawmakers, according to a House of Representatives source familiar with the talks.
Negotiators were racing against the clock to clear away remaining disputes in the massive spending bill.
"We're getting really close," House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, told reporters earlier on Wednesday, adding that negotiators were "getting down to the last, final" areas of disagreement.
Earlier this week, Republican President Donald Trump backed off his demand that the bill, which would spend around $1 trillion for an array of federal programs this year, include money for the "big, beautiful, powerful wall" he wants built along the U.S.-Mexican border.
That signature campaign proposal is seen by most Democrats and many Republicans as an ineffective way of securing U.S. borders.
The Trump administration likely will seek money for the wall in legislation funding the government for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but lawmakers are likely to balk again.
And some Democrats, who had insisted the legislation contain guarantees that the Trump administration continue healthcare subsidies for millions of low-income people enrolled in Obamacare, no longer appear willing to slow down the legislation for this. They are banking that Trump will decide on his own to back that program, at least for now.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from the coal mining state of Kentucky, threw his weight behind a plan Democrats were insisting on to make a healthcare program for coal miners permanent. It was still unclear if Ryan would go along.
If Congress cannot agree to either a short stopgap funding bill or a longer-term one by midnight Friday, federal agencies will run out of money and likely have to abruptly lay off hundreds of thousands of federal government workers until an appropriations bill is enacted.
Many policymakers are nervous about a repeat of 2013, when the government was shuttered for 17 days.
Even though Trump's fellow Republicans control both chambers of Congress, they only have 52 seats in the Senate. To amass the 60 votes needed there to pass a spending bill, Republicans will have to win the support of at least some Democratic lawmakers.
Still unclear was whether Republicans' demand for a $30 billion increase in defense spending for the rest of this fiscal year will be met. Democrats have insisted that any defense spending hikes be paired with similar increases in other domestic program funding.
Democrats have been seeking immediate assistance for a funding gap in Puerto Rico's Medicaid program, the federal health insurance program for the poor, saying it is in such bad shape that 1 million people are set to lose healthcare.
Also unclear is what "riders" that set new policy might be tucked into the legislation.
Past riders have touched on areas such as banning the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose political donations.
Democrats said they were worried Republicans could try to attach language limiting family-planning funds or undo Wall Street reforms enacted after the 2007-09 financial crisis.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Amanda Becker and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump's overview of the budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2018 are displayed at the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) on its release by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in Washington, U.S. on March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo