Congress has three days to avert a government shutdown, and House Speaker Paul Ryan is stuck.
On Tuesday, GOP leaders proposed a short-term government spending bill to extend the shutdown deadline for one more month — one that would 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 would not include a deal on immigration.
Short-term spending isn’t popular on either side of the aisle. The Democratic base has grown increasingly agitated about the looming expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, calling on their lawmakers to use the threat of government shutdown to win legislative protections for the DREAMers. Meanwhile, Republican defense hawks have been frustrated with the lack of permanent defense funding, warning that it hobbles the military’s ability to appropriately plan resources.
GOP leaders’ calculus: The short-term spending bill would pass in the House with only Republican votes, where the majority is big enough to do that, and then jam Senate Democrats, many of whom are in politically vulnerable seats.
But on Tuesday night, this strategy ran into a government shutdown–size problem.
“Based on the number of ‘no’ and undecided votes, there [are] not enough votes for a Republican-only bill,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the leader of the House’s archconservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters.
Then on Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose bipartisan immigration proposal was nixed by the president last week, said he too would not vote for a short-term spending bill in the Senate.
House Republicans can afford to lose roughly 21 votes on a short-term spending bill, meaning without the support of Freedom Caucus members and defense hawks, the short-term spending bill dies in the lower chamber, and with it any hope of keeping the government open. If it passes, even barely, it will have to be enough to convince at least 10 Senate Democrats — and some Republicans — that an immigration bill will come.
Ryan and Mitch McConnell have work to do.
How the archconservatives and Trump have jammed government spending negotiations
As tensions around a government shutdown escalate, the focus has been on Senate Democrats, whose votes are needed to keep the government open: Will they allow the government to stay open without a deal on immigration?
Two groups have traditionally had less leverage in spending fights: House Democrats, who don’t have enough votes to threaten a shutdown in the lower chamber, and House conservatives, who don’t have enough votes to kill a bipartisan bill. That’s changed this time.
House Democrats have withheld their votes on every short-term spending bill that hasn’t included a fix for the now-sunsetting DACA program since last October, and will likely do the same this week. And conservatives are threatening to tank the whole effort. Meadows said the Freedom Caucus would support a stopgap spending bill if it fully funded 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.
Meadows also wants a vote on a conservative immigration bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), in the House, the strategy being that it would pressure the Senate negotiations. Goodlatte’s immigration proposal, which is not bipartisan, and goes much further than even the White House’s guidelines for a DACA deal, is very unlikely to see any Democratic support.
It’s important to note that these same conservatives who are now threatening a shutdown over short-term spending are among the cast of characters that have thrown immigration talks into disarray.
Last week, a bipartisan group of senators led by Graham, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) presented Trump with a proposal that would give DREAMers a chance at legal status and a path to citizenship, while restricting them from sponsoring their parents, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, and funding some border projects.
Meadows, who has long had a close relationship with Trump, and served as a kind of avatar for Trumpism in Congress, slammed the bipartisan Graham-Durbin deal ahead of Trump’s Thursday meeting on the proposal. He predicted Trump wouldn’t go for it: “Sounds like a Durbin deal,” Meadows said. He was right.
Trump rejected the plan and has since been stoking partisan rancor. It’s left Congress divided between lawmakers actively participating in bipartisan negotiations and conservative hardliners who have shown no interest in compromise. Trump has increasingly been talking to the latter, like Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Meadows, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — which has angered bipartisan negotiators.
Graham told reporters he also would not vote for a short-term spending bill, making the case that a partisan approach to immigration would negatively impact bipartisan negotiations over military spending.
“I don’t see how we get defense spending increases without dealing with DACA,” he said.
To sum up, immigration hardliners have been talking Trump down from bipartisan immigration proposals, prompting Democrats to withhold votes on any must-pass spending bills. And now those same House conservatives are putting a party-line vote to avert government shutdown at risk.
It’s been a doozy.
This is going to be tight
Since Congress returned to session in early January, negotiations over spending have been an inconclusive scramble.
Republican leaders continue to assert that a shutdown won’t happen, but they have yet to secure the votes — in either the House or the Senate. Meadows says he has 26 undecided or “no” votes on the CR in the Freedom Caucus alone.
Democrats know they have some leverage. Republicans need 60 votes in the Senate to keep the government open. Having already secured some wins through the budget process in the past, coming to an agreement on a spending bill for 2017 that nearly half the GOP conference hated, the minority party has now racked up an even longer list of demands.
DACA has taken shape as the top priority. Democrats know it’s nearly impossible to attach an immigration bill to a spending bill in three days, but negotiations hit a major setback since Trump spoke out against the first bipartisan agreement. On Wednesday morning, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who is part of the leadership-sanctioned immigration working group, called to go “back to the drawing board.”
But shutting down the government is not a clear-cut victory for anyone. Both Senate Democrats and House Republicans are facing political headwinds in a contentious midterm election year, and shutdowns don’t typically make for good policy.
Like all spending fights, this will be a game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. But less than 72 hours out from their deadline, it’s still not clear who will blink.