WASHINGTON — An early December government shutdown is a real possibility, since a divided Congress can't agree on military spending, Democrats insist on help for young immigrants and President Donald Trump's position can change with each lawmaker he talks to.
Most of Washington is focused on overhauling the nation's tax code, but lawmakers face a combustible mix of must-do and could-do items, with the current government spending bill set to expire Dec. 8. On the list are immigration and a U.S.-Mexico border wall; an impasse over children's health care; pent-up demand for budget increases for the Pentagon and domestic agencies; and tens of billions of dollars in hurricane aid.
There's plenty at stake for Republicans controlling Washington. Politically, there's an urgency to avoid a debilitating shutdown just as the GOP hopes to wrap up an overhaul of the tax code that's its top priority. And legions of GOP defense hawks are adamant that the Pentagon receive a huge 2018 budget hike approaching $80-90 billion. Trump and many followers want the U.S.-Mexico wall.
Democrats retain considerable power in the endgame — their votes are needed — and are pressing demands of their own. They want protections for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as young children. They also demand budget increases for domestic agencies.
For his part, Trump tends to waver depending on the situation — siding with Democrats on a debt deal in September, promising Republicans last week that the controversial immigration issue won't be part of the year-end spending measure.
Meanwhile, the tax debate is taking up energy, time and political capital, and GOP leaders seem reluctant to issue controversial decisions that might harm its chances.
Here's a rundown of non-tax issues facing Congress and Trump:
Ideally, top leaders in both parties would like to agree on new spending levels and pass a catchall bill by the Dec. 8 deadline. That's looking increasingly unlikely. Another temporary funding bill would be needed to avert a government shutdown, but many Democrats say they won't be able to support any measure that doesn't include help for so-called "Dreamer" immigrants facing deportation. That increases the odds of a shutdown.
Congressional leaders are conducting secret talks on raising the spending levels and say they are optimistic of a deal. But there's no sign of one yet. A possible agreement could add perhaps $100 billion to the budget for the current year alone, which is sure to cause sticker shock among the GOP's fiscal conservatives. Trump's demands for the border wall — a nonstarter with Democrats — could spark a shutdown battle.
Then there's aid to areas devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The White House promises to submit a request later this month for "several tens of billions of dollars" aimed mostly at helping Texas and Florida. That's likely to bring the total appropriated since September for hurricane relief to more than $100 billion, which is likely to rankle deficit hawks.
Trump announced in September that he is ending temporary deportation protections granted by the Obama administration to young immigrants known as "Dreamers" who were illegally brought into the U.S. and often have known no other home. But he gave Congress until March to come up with a fix and promised top Democratic leaders he would sign legislation protecting them, so long as he wins billions for border security.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Senate Democrats, such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, are demanding the immigration issue be addressed as soon as possible and won't vote for any spending bill that fails to include a solution. That could doom the spending bill as Republicans need Democratic votes to pass the measure. Top Democrats such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are keeping their powder dry in hopes that negotiations, which presently appear stalled, pick up steam.
The reauthorization of an expired children's health program is becoming more urgent as the lapse in the program will mean a cutoff in services in Arizona, California, Minnesota, Ohio and other states by late December or January.
There's a bipartisan desire to extend the program, but negotiations over how to pay for the measure have yet to produce a breakthrough. A compromise ultimately appears likely, and the measure is a candidate to be coupled with other items in December.
House and Senate negotiators are putting the final touches on an annual defense policy bill for the 2018 fiscal year that's expected to increase the Pentagon's core budget by billions of dollars more than the $603 billion Trump requested.
There's some urgency to the talks since Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer.
The defense policy bill is expected to expand U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's advancing nuclear weapons programs. Lawmakers also are trying to resolve a long simmering debate over the creation of a new branch that would be in charge of the U.S. military's space assets.
Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing's attorney took aim at the state's case Monday, arguing prosecutors had overcharged him and investigators should have notified him of deficiencies on his tax returns before they charged him with felonies.
"They intentionally didn't do that," Sean Brennan argued at the close of a preliminary hearing in Lancaster County Court.
But Nebraska Assistant Attorney General Laura Nigro countered the evidence showed that more likely than not -- the threshold for the case to move on to district court -- Stebbing was selling vehicles as a business without a dealer's license.
Stebbing is charged with two counts of falsifying bills of sale, two counts of filing fraudulent state income taxes and one count of selling cars without a license, each a Class IV felony.
Matt Brodecky, a Nebraska State Patrol investigator in the vehicle fraud division, said Stebbing had used Craigslist and Facebook to sell 12 vehicles within a 12-month period and had tried to sell a 13th.
Under state law, anyone who sells more than eight must register with the state as a dealer. Stebbing didn't.
"That looks a lot like a business," Nigro said.
Even if it isn't, she said, it's still income that Stebbing failed to report on his tax returns.
It ultimately could come down to a matter of interpretation of state statutes and whether Stebbing's vehicle sales were "bonafide consumer transactions," as Brennan contends.
By law, vehicle owners can sell their car or truck even if they aren't a dealer if they have titled and registered it and had it for a period of time.
Brodecky said Stebbing titled and registered seven of the 12, but took issue with Brennan's assertion that they were exempt from being counted toward the eight.
"If he sold one vehicle without titling and registering it, he's not exempt," Brodecky said.
Nigro argued that Stebbing had failed to meet the requirements to be considered a consumer in five ways and twice put false purchase prices on bills of sale, according to buyers.
Brennan took issue with the charge itself, saying there is no such thing in statute as falsifying a bill of sale. If someone put the wrong purchase price on a bill of sale that's a misdemeanor, not a felony, he said.
Mark Ford, a criminal investigator in the Nebraska Department of Revenue, testified at the hearing that he had looked at Stebbing's bank records and tax returns and determined he had failed to report about $5,500 in income from vehicle sales one year and $2,500 another.
On those same returns, Stebbing reported three other side businesses involving DVD sales, lawn care and an Uber ride service. But not the car sales, he said.
Ford said Stebbing told another investigator he was struggling financially due to a recent divorce and decided to buy and sell some cars to supplement his salary as county treasurer.
Stebbing turned most of the vehicles around quickly, a day to a couple of weeks, the investigator said. One took 45 days.
Brennan pressed Ford about why he didn't send Stebbing a notice of tax deficiency, which is required by law.
"I would consider them fraudulent not insufficient," Ford said.
What prohibited him from sending a taxpayer a notice saying he owed money, Brennan asked. Then not paying it would clearly be a willful act.
At the end of Monday's hearing, Seward County Judge C. Jo Petersen gave the state 10 days to file a brief in response to Brennan's, and she told Stebbing she could bind over all, some or none of the charges.
Petersen is presiding over the case because Lancaster County judges declared a conflict.