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Congress’s massive budget deal, explained

Lawmakers have reached an agreement to fund the government and historically boost the budget. Will it pass?

Bob Dole - Washington, DC Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Congress officially struck a spending deal that just might avoid another shutdown when the government runs out of money on Thursday — with a massive increase to domestic and defense spending over the next two years.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a deal on budget caps that would 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.

“The budget deal is a win for the American people,” Schumer said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

The emerging deal 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. Instead, the Senate is expected to take on the DACA question in a potentially chaotic open floor vote next week.

This budget caps deal would be attached to a short-term spending bill, to give lawmakers time to write the specific appropriations bills. There are reports that the agreement could include a one-year increase to the debt ceiling as well.

While this is a major step forward for Democrats and Republicans, there are still roadblocks ahead. The conservative and progressive flanks in the House are sounding alarm bells over what is looking like a significant spending hike and still no deal on immigration, and threatening to vote against the final agreement. 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. But immigration negotiations 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 in the runup to the shutdown.

There is one big difference this time around, though. 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. It’s freed Democrats to focus on just a spending deal and return to the question of immigration separately.

There’s a budget caps deal that would lead to major fiscal stimulus

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 toward opioid and mental health treatment
  • Put $5.8 billion toward the bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant
  • Put $4 billion toward the Veterans Administration to rebuild and improve veterans hospitals and clinics
  • Put $2 billion toward research at the National Institutes of Health
  • Put $20 billion toward infrastructure, including highways, water, wastewater, and rural broadband
  • Put $4 billion toward college affordability programs for police officers, teachers, and firefighters
  • Include $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 billion 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 plan resources adequately. But it has also proven to be a big victory for Democrats who are seeing historic increases in funding for domestic programs, which cover everything from health care to education and environmental protections.

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.

Whether this deal goes through may come down to the House

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 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.

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. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads a caucus of House conservatives, has signaled he and a number of lawmakers in his group are unlikely to vote for a short-term spending bill. In other words, Republicans in the House will likely need Democratic support for any short-term spending deal that includes a budget caps agreement.

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. Whether he will be able to keep to that promise as well as one to Pelosi poses a major dilemma for him over government spending and immigration. It’s starting to look like a standoff in the House, even though the body usually goes along with what the Senate decides.

Whichever bill passes will be the fifth short-term spending bill Congress has installed since the start of the fiscal year last September.

Congress still doesn’t appear any closer to an actual deal on immigration

Activists Rally At Florida Office Of Sen. Bill Nelson In Support Of Immigrants Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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 Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and 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 up 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, Speaker 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, Majority Leader McConnell promised an open debate on immigration on the Senate floor, as long as Democrats voted to keep the government open this week.

How McConnell will make good on that promise remains to be seen.