At the end of 2017, Congress punted on a full slate of high-stakes priorities, including addressing undocumented immigrants, passing disaster relief funding, and stabilizing the health care markets, to the new year.
Now they’re back, and there’s a lot of work to do, likely all by January 19 — when Congress must pass a federal spending bill to prevent the government from shutting down.
Democrats have the rare opportunity to push for a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Donald Trump is ending, and passing a more permanent extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers roughly 9 million kids.
If Democrats stay united, Republicans, who need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to meet the 60-vote threshold required to pass a spending bill, will have to make some serious compromises to get a final spending bill through.
Democrats don’t often find themselves in a position to leverage difficult bipartisan deals these days, and they’re facing incredible pressure from activists to make use of it this time. As with all spending negotiations, this will be a game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. If Democrats can stick together in withholding votes, Republicans will be forced to cave — or risk presiding over a government shutdown in a midterm election year.
Democrats have allowed Republicans to punt on DACA. Now time is running out.
Ever since Trump said he would put an end to DACA protections, Democrats have promised to use their leverage in spending negotiations to push for a legislative fix. Since the announcement, they’ve had three opportunities to do so and have folded each time.
Minority leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have been meeting with top Republicans and the president on spending bill negotiations. They said their most recent meetings were “productive” but have reached no major agreements.
That in itself is some progress. Earlier this year, the two top Democrats pulled out of a meeting with Trump on government spending after he tweeted that he didn’t “see a deal” happening with them. “Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes,” Trump tweeted.
There is general consensus around enshrining some version of DACA into law in exchange for some border security, but Trump has continued to complicate negotiations. In late December, he tweeted that there would be no deal on DACA without funding the border wall, an end to “chain migration,” and a complete overhaul of the legal immigration system — almost all of which are nonstarters for Democrats.
The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2017
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are still in the throes of negotiating among themselves. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who has been in on DACA negotiations, said a deal would be on the Senate floor in January; it’s not clear whether that would stand alone or be attached to the spending bill, or what would be in it.
Flake has supported the bipartisan DREAM Act, which would extend the DACA program and give recipients a path to citizenship. Others, like Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), James Lankford (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), have proposed the 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.”
Democrats had said that, first and foremost, they want “clean” passage of the DREAM Act. 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. They did not vote for any of the stopgap funding bills because of this promise. However, red-state Democrats in the Senate are under more pressure to prevent a government shutdown.
Now Democrats have one more opportunity to exercise their leverage on this issue. If Democrats stand firm, Trump might be forced to make major concessions on that front.
Republicans still need to deal with health care, even if it’s not repeal
In 2017, Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare — but they managed to pass some policies, and ignore others, that could have serious consequences for the American health care system.
First and foremost, the GOP tax law passed in late December repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which penalizes individuals who opt out of buying health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing the individual mandate would leave 13 million fewer insured by 2027 and increase premiums by an average of 10 percent over the next decade.
On top of that, 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 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. While this is not expected to offset the effects of repealing the individual mandate, Democrats have made the bill a priority.
It’s an effort that has overwhelming bipartisan support — but has gotten a lot of pushback from House Republicans. In the tax bill negotiations, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who notably voted against repealing Obamacare, was promised an Obamacare stabilization package last year, including funding cost-sharing reduction subsidies, and said it would pass in 2018.
Democrats will likely use the spending deadline as an opportunity to force Republicans to vote on the Alexander-Murray bill.
But that’s not the only health care-related bipartisan push.
With Republican toiling over health care reform and their tax bill, Congress let the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million kids, expire without a deal to extend the program last September. In December, Congress temporarily funded the program through March (and back-paid funding from when the program expired).
Extending the program more permanently has bipartisan support but has been stuck between the House and Senate for months. The Senate struck a deal to extend the program for five years, but the tax negotiations put the effort on hold. A proposal passed by the House 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,” he 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.”
There’s a long list of Democratic 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 have racked 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.
On top of DACA, CHIP, and Obamacare funding, Democrats will still have to put up a fight against a whole host of “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. The House passed an $81 billion disaster relief package before leaving town for Christmas. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said the Senate will take that up this year.
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 raised 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), the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said. “We did it before, and we’ll do it again.”