Congressional leaders struck a deal they thought would be enticing enough to avoid another government shutdown Thursday. But as lawmakers barrel toward the midnight deadline, when the government runs out of money, it’s still not clear there’s enough support to keep the government running.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a deal on budget caps Wednesday that would make increase investments in domestic programs and the military by roughly $300 billion over the next two years: The deal lifts funding for domestic programs by $128 billion and hikes defense budgets by $160 billion. This budget caps deal would be attached to a short-term spending bill through the end of March, to give lawmakers time to write the specific appropriations bills, and also increase the debt ceiling for one year.
But the agreement sets aside the question of immigration and what to do about the sunsetting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was at the heart of the standoff in January that ended in a three-day shutdown.
And for House Democrats, that’s too big a concession.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she and a significant number of Democrats would vote against the budget deal if House Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t give assurances of a vote on a DACA fix. Meanwhile, enough House conservatives, concerned about a massive spending increase, say they are voting against the budget deal. That means Republican leaders actually need Democrats to support the budget agreement in the House.
Ryan has refused to give Pelosi firm assurances on immigration, and negotiations on DACA have largely stalled, stuck between the moderate-but-passable proposals that the White House won’t support and conservative Trump-endorsed proposals that won’t see the light of day in the Senate — the same dynamics as the run-up to the shutdown two weeks ago.
Democrats do not have the same appetite to go through with a government shutdown as they did two weeks ago, and they are under less pressure from advocates to get a deal on DACA at any cost. But we’re seeing the rare occasion where House Democrats have enough leverage over a shutdown to make policy demands.
There’s a bipartisan budget caps deal that’s both a success and causing a lot of trouble
Congressional Leaders have come to a massive budget caps deal that would amount to significant increases in spending for domestic programs and the military over the next two years.
Specifically the agreement would:
- Extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 10 years
- Include $80 billion in disaster relief funding
- Put $6 billion in funding towards opioid and mental health treatment.
- $5.8 billion for the bipartisan Child Care Development Block Grant.
- $4 billion towards the Veterans Administration to rebuild and improve veterans hospitals and clinics.
- $2 billion towards research at the National Institutes of Health.
- $20 billion towards infrastructure, including highways, water, wastewater and rural broadband.
- $4 billion toward college affordability programs for police officers, teachers and firefighters.
- $7 billion in funding and a two year reauthorization for Community Health Centers.
This agreement is the result of a fight that goes back to 2011 when an Obama-era impasse over the debt ceiling brought the American economy to near calamity, which ultimately resulted in the 2013 sequester, setting into law across-the-board budget cuts and establishing budget caps that would amount to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.
Congress has repeatedly voted to raise the budget caps. Since the 2013 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 on in 2015. But those adjustments, which extended 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 both Republicans and Democrats would like to spend. This deal would increase those numbers by more than $80 and $60 billion per year, respectively.
Reaching a budget cap deal is a high priority for defense hawks in Congress, who say short-term spending deals hobble the military, preventing them from being able to adequately plan resources. But it has also proven to be a victory for Democrats. Despite negotiating under a Republican-led government, Democrats are seeing increases in funding for domestic programs, that cover everything from health care, to education and environmental protections. The latter has angered conservatives, who are okay with boosting military funding but say the increases to domestic spending takes too big a toll on the national debt.
Republicans need Democratic votes to raise the budget caps on military spending and domestic programs to meet the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. With these budget caps, appropriators — the lawmakers in charge of the nation’s purse strings — can begin putting together a trillion-dollar spending bill that would fund the government through next September, are stalled. Writing long term appropriations bills could take a month.
House Democrats have leverage in this fight for once
Shortly before Senate leaders announced they would vote on a budget deal that would fund the government through the end of March, extend funding for community health centers for two years and also substantially boost the budget caps for defense and domestic programs, Pelosi said she wanted Ryan to make her the same promise Mitch McConnell made Senate Democrats two weeks ago: a guaranteed vote on an immigration bill that addresses DACA.
“Without a commitment from Speaker Ryan comparable to the commitment from Leader McConnell, this package does not have my support,” Pelosi said in a statement, coming out against the deal she helped negotiate.
But Pelosi, and House Democrats aren’t the only lawmakers standing against the budget deal.
Already conservative deficit hawks in the House have sounded the alarm bells over what is looking like a significant spending hike — roughly $300 billion more in defense and non-defense funding over the next two years. The Freedom caucus, a group of 40 House conservatives, have come out against the deal. In other words, Republicans in the House need Democratic support for any short-term spending deal that includes a budget caps agreement.
But Ryan has pledged he won’t bring up any immigration bill that doesn’t have the majority of his party’s support — called the Hastert Rule — or President Donald Trump’s blessing, neither of which bode well for House Democrats.
With an archconservative revolt, House Democrats increasingly see this as their opportunity to put Ryan’s feet to the fire on immigration. Pelosi and Democratic leadership have gone back and forth on whipping their members against the budget deal, but the leader’s own decision to stand against the deal has proven persuasive.
“Anyone that underestimates the ability of Nancy Pelosi to influence the Democratic Caucus shouldn’t be in the business that you are in,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told reporters Thursday.
Congress still doesn’t appear any closer to an actual deal on immigration
When Democrats and Republicans voted to reopen the government, the idea was they would spend the following weeks cobbling together a deal on immigration and more permanent government spending in the weeks ahead.
But the actual legislative calendar shrank that window for negotiation, and talks have since increasingly splintered.
Two weeks ago, Trump’s administration briefed Republican congressional aides with an immigration proposal that called for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, $25 billion to fund a Southern border wall, substantial curtailing of family immigration, and the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program, which would gut the legal immigration system.
The proposal was largely interpreted as a White House alternative to the one bipartisan proposal by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on immigration that Trump has already shot down.
Both Republican leaders in the House and Senate supported the clarity offered by the White House proposal but made no commitments to the actual policy. By the following week, House Republicans were still discussing the partisan immigration proposal by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which is unlikely to garner any Democratic support. And already some Republicans in the Senate have expressed concern with the proposal’s serious cuts to legal immigration.
Meanwhile, several other groups have also continued negotiations on completely separate tracks:
- The shutdown also brought together a larger group of bipartisan negotiators — roughly 30 senators who’ve named themselves the “Common Sense Coalition,” who are intent on moving immigration talks forward but have yet to come forward with a proposal.
- The team of Democratic and Republican leadership deputies that have been dubbed the “No. 2s,” consisting of Durbin again, as well as Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), and Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), have also been negotiating.
- There are two more Democratic-friendly bipartisan proposals in the House and Senate, proposed by Reps. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA) and Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE), both of which propose slimmed-down DACA and border security fixes; both are still in early stages.
In short, the state of immigration negotiations in Congress remains decentralized and disjointed.
For weeks, conservative hardliners have commandeered immigration negotiations. To win enough House Republican votes for the short-term spending bill two weeks ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised the Freedom Caucus, the lower chamber’s group of ultraconservatives, that Republican leadership would whip votes for a conservative Goodlatte immigration bill. Conservatives continue to say there is a path to compromise, but they have shown no willingness to work with Democrats thus far.
Last week, Durbin said lawmakers weren’t any closer to reaching an immigration deal than they were two weeks ago, and some senators have been telling reporters that they could see Congress punting on the immigration debate for another year. How they would do that is unclear.
Meanwhile, to end the last government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised an open debate on immigration on the Senate floor, as long as Democrats voted to keep the government open this week.
Whether McConnell will make good on that promise remains to be seen.