Barreling toward a government shutdown deadline, Congress left for the night Thursday without knowing how it would keep government by midnight on January 19.
The House voted to push the government shutdown deadline to February, but there are still enough Senate Democrats saying they will vote against a spending bill to shut down the federal government Friday.
At an impasse over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, GOP leaders are trying to force a short-term government spending bill that would extend the shutdown deadline for one more month; it would also fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years in an effort to entice Democrats, and delay several Obamacare taxes to throw a bone to conservative Republicans. It does not include a deal on immigration.
Frustrated by how negotiations have gone on immigration and federal spending, Senate Democrats and Republicans have been coming out against another short-term proposal.
There is still an extremely long-shot idea: Democrat have offered to support a short-short-term CR, or a bill that would keep the government funded for a few more days while, as Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) said, they “finish up” negotiations on DACA.
At this point, it’s not clear that a couple more days of negotiations could resolve what has become an anarchic congressional debate over immigration. President Donald Trump spun negotiations into chaos last week, insisting last Tuesday he was on board with a bipartisan proposal to fix the program and then turning on that support by Thursday, reportedly calling some countries “shitholes.”
“This has turned into an s-show for no good reason, and the only way out of this thing is to grow up a little bit — and I think that’s going to happen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters Thursday morning. Without an agreement on immigration, Graham has said he would join Democrats in voting against a short-term spending bill.
Right now there’s no clear path to keeping the government open
By midnight on January 19, one of the following three things will happen:
Scenario 1: The government shuts down. Unless something changes, this is where Congress is headed. This would mean a lot of “nonessential” government activities would cease — from federally funded research to operations of national parks — come Saturday January 20.
Scenario 2: The government stays open, without a deal on immigration. In this scenario, Congress passes some kind of spending bill and keeps the government open for now. This would mean some Democrats in the Senate were willing to vote to keep the government open without a deal on their top immigration priorities, a major concession on Democrats’ part. The emerging short-short-term spending bill Moran proposed Thursday has gained some support, and Democrats said they would vote for it.
Scenario 3: The government stays open, with some kind of deal on immigration. This scenario would be a major legislative feat at this point. Immigration talks have more or less collapsed. It’s highly unlikely Congress will have an actual immigration bill by Friday, but a spending agreement, and a deal on immigration that has the votes in Congress as well as the White House’s approval, would likely allow both parties to come out of this looking like they have some wins.
At this point, the Senate does not have a clear path toward averting shutdown.
In the Senate, enough Democrats have lined up against the CR, listening to a voter base that has grown increasingly agitated about the looming expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and has called on their lawmakers to use the threat of government shutdown to win legislative protections for the DREAMers.
“The overwhelming number in our caucus have said they don’t like this deal and they believe if we kick the can down the road this time, we’ll be back where we started from next time,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said during a Wednesday press conference. He said Democrats have reacted to the proposed short-term CR with “revulsion.”
Senate Democrats aren’t Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s only problem, however. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is still out undergoing treatment for brain cancer, and Graham, who has an immigration proposal that is gaining popularity among Republican ranks but has gotten no support from GOP leadership and the White House, is also saying he will vote against the CR. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) also said he wasn’t “inclined” to vote for the CR Thursday night, saying he supported the short-short term spending bill that would only last a couple days.
Rand Paul (R-KY) have also said he’s vote against it. There’s still a question mark over Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-UT) vote; Lee has been known to vote against short-term spending deals.
Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) who was previously against the CR struck a deal over defense funding that has now gained his support.
Losing Republican votes only takes the pressure off vulnerable Democrats, who may have been willing to vote to keep the government open. Like all spending fights, this will be a game of chicken. For now, neither camp is blinking.
After a series of tortured back and forth negotiations between House leadership, the White House and a group of ultraconservatives, House Speaker Paul Ryan finally managed to scrape together enough votes to pass a short-term spending deal Thursday night. Earlier this week a the Freedom Caucus said they would oppose the CR bill if it didn’t fully fund defense spending for one year — a near-impossible ask for Democrats, who in this scenario would be getting nothing on their own spending priorities and still be short an immigration deal — and vote on a conservative immigration bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).
Ryan gave the Freedom Caucus assurances that leadership would push a conservative immigration proposal before February 19 (the bill would likely look like Goodlatte’s, which is not bipartisan and goes much further than even the White House’s guidelines for a DACA deal), as well as put up a vote on a defense spending bill in the next 10 days. Both of those promises are dead on arrival in the Senate, but were enough to get the conservatives on board.
Behind all this is a stalled negotiation over budget caps
Lurking behind the government shutdown fight is a problem Republicans need to deal with — one that has given Democrats leverage in negotiations: budget caps, which put a hard upper limit on how much Congress can spend on military and domestic programs.
Republicans need Democratic votes to raise the budget caps on military spending or risk triggering a sequester — across-the-board budget cuts on everything from education to defense.
It all goes back to 2011, when an Obama-era impasse over the debt ceiling brought the American economy to near calamity. The ultimate result was the 2013 sequester, which set into law across-the-board budget cuts and established caps that would amount to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.
Since the sequester, there have been two bipartisan deals to raise the caps by billions of dollars. The first in 2013 was forged between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray; a second was agreed upon in 2015. There’s no question that Trump wants Congress to do that again. His proposed defense budget busts the sequester cap by tens of billions. Congress needs 60 votes in the Senate to do this.
In early 2011, Republicans in the House, led by Speaker John Boehner, refused to increase the debt limit without Congress taking action to address the national debt.
The face-off, which put the United States at risk of defaulting on its debt, pushed President Obama to sign the Budget Control Act. The law instructed Congress to find more than a trillion dollars in government spending cuts by the end of the year or risk a sequester, which cuts all discretionary programs — both defense and non-defense — across the board (except for entitlement programs like Medicaid and Social Security).
Congress failed, which triggered automatic budget cuts in 2013 and imposed annual, more restrictive budget caps until 2021. According to a 2015 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding for domestic programs was essentially flat between 2012 and 2015, meaning there were substantial cuts when adjusted for inflation.
Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly voted to raise the budget caps and give sequester relief, but those adjustments, which went through fiscal year 2017, have now expired. In 2018, the sequester budget caps max out defense spending at $549 billion and non-defense discretionary funding at $516 billion, far less than what Republicans and Democrats would like to spend.
Last year, Trump’s budget called for $603 billion in defense funding, and both the Senate and House separately proposed even higher figures.
The congressional process to fund the government, known as appropriations, runs on two tracks: 1) discretionary spending, which is split between defense funding for the military and non-defense funding, which covers areas like education, science, and government; and 2) mandatory spending, which most notably covers programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and welfare programs like cash assistance and food stamps.
Appropriators need these topline numbers to begin putting together a trillion-dollar spending bill that would fund the government through next September. But there’s a lot more on the line: Before agreeing to new budget caps, Democrats want a deal on DACA.
Republicans want a lot more military funding. Democrats want an immigration deal. They’re talking past each other.
Democrats have established a guiding principle in spending negotiations: If Republicans want more funding for defense, then Democrats want a one-for-one increase in non-defense funding.
But this year, that’s not all they want. Ever since Trump said he would put an end to DACA, which gives legal protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, Democrats have said they’d use their leverage in spending negotiations to make sure the program is enshrined into law.
Negotiations on DACA haven’t been going well. Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers came out with the contours of a deal on DACA that looked like it could garner enough votes to pass. Then Trump and the White House nixed the proposal, with Trump’s now-famous comments calling African countries “shitholes” (or “shithouses”) in a White House meeting Thursday. He subsequently blamed Democrats via Twitter for torpedoing negotiations. Congress has continued to talk immigration despite Trump’s remarks, but it’s not clear how consensus can be reached, and Republicans have been slow-walking the process.
Congress has punted on government spending negotiations since October 1, 2017, the start of the 2018 fiscal year, passing short-term continuing resolution spending bills to keep the government open. Republicans are trying to do that again.
Top Republicans have continued to push to keep DACA out of spending negotiations. But they’re coming down to the wire, and with enough lawmakers coming out against the spending bill, Democrats and Republicans appear to be talking past each other.