Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a spending bill or the federal government will run out of money and shut down.
Last week, top Democrats pulled out of a meeting with President Donald Trump on government spending after the president tweeted that he didn’t “see a deal” happening with Minority Leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes,” Trump tweeted.
The meeting is now back on, scheduled for Thursday — the day before the shutdown deadline.
Republicans in the House have already proposed passing a two-week stop-gap government funding measure — a continuing resolution — keeping spending levels at status quo until December 22 to buy Congress more time to hash out a deal.
If there’s enough Republican consensus, the House can pass it without Democratic votes. The tricky thing is that Republicans need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to pass a spending bill, which means they will need to make some serious compromises to get a bill through. Just days before the deadline, Republican senators still don’t seem to have a clue what the strategy is going forward.
But Democrats have a lot of priorities they’d like addressed, from a legislative fix for undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to funding for the federal children’s insurance program. Meanwhile Republicans and Democrats still haven’t even agreed on top-line spending levels for military and nondefense spending.
None of these policy areas are easy bipartisan negotiations. We can expect Democrats to tie them to the must-pass government spending bill — and use the threat of a government shutdown to try to get their way.
As with all spending negotiations, this will be a game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. If Democrats can hold together in withholding votes, Republicans will be forced to cave — or risk presiding over a government shutdown.
There is a lot of pressure for Democrats to get something on immigration
Ever since Trump said he would put an end to DACA protections, Democrats had said that, first and foremost, they want “clean” passage of the DREAM Act. Short of that, they say they would agree to some additional border security enforcement — but nothing close to what Trump’s White House has proposed.
“There’s a lot of must-pass pieces of legislation that require Democratic support to get them over the finish line, and Democrats have made it clear that if the DREAM Act is not addressed … they’re not going to have any Democrats to get them over the finish line,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters.
In other words, government spending, like the two-week continuing resolution, or otherwise, give Democrats an opportunity to exercise their leverage.
As Dara Lind explained for Vox, Democrats take the demands of their immigrant base very seriously these days, which means the amount of wiggle room they have is small. Already, senators like Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have publicly vowed to oppose any government funding bill unless Congress takes action to protect DREAMers. However, red-state Democrats in the senate will be under more pressure to prevent a government shutdown.
Even if Democrats get in line, there still isn’t consensus among Republicans around a deal for DREAMers. There are senators like Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who have supported the Democratic-backed DREAM Act, and who recently received vague assurances from top Republican leaders to have a seat at the negotiating table in exchange for a vote on the tax bill.
Others like Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), James Lankford (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have proposed a more conservative SUCCEED Act, which would create a 15-year path to citizenship for DACA recipients, would have a “merit-based” residency program for children who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and wouldn’t allow recipients to sponsor family members to the United States on a green card — a direct nod to Trump’s recent calls against “chain migration.”
Meanwhile Trump has been very mercurial on the issue. He has expressed sympathy for the DACA recipients but also touted his tough-on-immigration platform, calling down any proposal that offers a path to citizenship.
If Democrats stand firm, the president might be forced to make major concessions on that front.
Democrats have a long list of priorities
Democrats have already secured some wins through the budget process. Earlier this year, top Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on a spending bill for 2017 that nearly half the GOP conference hated. It didn’t fund Trump’s border wall and it kept out provisions that would defund Planned Parenthood in exchange for an increase to defense funding and some border security money.
This time, however, Democrats are racking up an even longer list of priorities.
“These are all crises being created by congressional Republicans or the president,” one senior Democratic leadership aide said:
1) Trump said he would stop paying Obamacare subsidies — which will make premiums go up for middle- and higher-income people
Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced a bipartisan health care deal last week in an effort to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. It would fund key insurance subsidies while giving states more flexibility on Obamacare’s regulations.
The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already poured cold water on the whole exercise, but it’s getting more and more likely the proposal will see the light of day after Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said she would vote for the tax bill, which repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate, if Republicans pass the Obamacare stabilization package.
It’s highly possible Democrats will also use the spending deadline as an opportunity to force Republicans to vote on the Alexander-Murray bill.
2) CHIP still hasn’t been renewed — and Democrats may want to use this deadline to renew that program too
Congress has already let the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million kids, expire without a deal to extend the program.
This program has widespread bipartisan support, and the Senate is considering a bipartisan deal to extend the program for five years. But the tax bill effort has put children’s insurance on hold. Currently the proposal passed by the House makes attempts to offset CHIP’s cost by taking money from Medicare and the Affordable Care Act to pay for it, which Democrats have pushed back against.
CHIP is typically an easy lift, and Hatch, who oversees the senate committee with power over the program keeps saying it will get done. “We’re going to do CHIP — there’s no question about it in my mind,” Hatch said. “But we’ve got to do it the right way. But the reason CHIP’s having trouble is because we don’t have any money anymore.”
Democrats will likely use the spending bills as the path forward to actually get funding on the books.
3) Relief funding, the border wall, Planned Parenthood, and everything else
On top of DACA, CHIP, and Obamacare funding, Democrats will still have to put up a fight against a whole host of other “nonstarters” that Republicans have been known to propose. For example, Democrats have made it clear that they will not allow funding for the Southern border wall that Trump has insisted on since taking office. Every effort to defund Planned Parenthood has also been met with organized Democratic opposition.
And with the natural disasters in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and California, there is already talk of increased relief funding, which fiscally conservative Republicans have grown increasingly reluctant to sign on to.
Any one of these issues would be a major agenda item in any congressional term — and leaving them all to the end of the year only raises the stakes for the spending fight.
“We did this in April, and started out with 160 poison pills, the wall, and we sat down and got rid of all the poison pills and [the] wall,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said. “We did it before, and we’ll do it again.”
Trump has made spending negotiations way more complicated
Trump and congressional Republicans are on their way to passing tax reform — what would be their sole major legislative victory since controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House. It certainly won’t be a good look for them if they are unable to keep the government open.
But as with all bills, the final say on the budget is Trump’s. He has to decide whether he will sign anything short of his campaign demands. And it seems he has been less concerned with the prospect of a government shutdown than Republicans leaders are.
Rather, he has raised the stakes of shutdown by throwing so many policy deadlines to Congress on immigration and health care.
In May, Trump was reportedly talked out of vetoing the 2017 spending bill over a lack of wall funding. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether the president would sign on to a deal that still doesn’t fund the wall but does fund Obamacare subsidies and offers a path to citizenship for DACA recipients — or any one of those.
What we do know is that the political calculus of a government shutdown has shifted over time from complete disaster to possible political strategy — and while Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have been rightfully wary of letting it get to this point, Trump and his conservative allies seem willing to go that far.
It’s possible Trump will get the blame; in the 1995 shutdown, Republicans’ approval ratings dropped, as did those of then-President Bill Clinton. But in the 2013 midterms, while Republicans in Congress again got the blame, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings remained relatively unchanged.
In both cases, as George Washington University political scientist John Sides pointed out, the negative impact was “short-lived.”
“Perhaps the bigger questions are whether it results in concrete policy gains by either side,” Sides said. “Clearly many Republicans believed that the 2013 shutdown didn’t really cost them, which vindicated the strategy in their minds.”
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