Life is rarely dull in Washington these days, and this week was no exception, with major bipartisan legislation on fiscal policy playing out against the backdrop of yet another massive scandal involving multiple senior Trump administration officials.
The disjoint between the Trump Show and the outbreak of comity in Congress is a reminder of one of the fundamental dynamics of Trump’s Washington: Most of the political system keeps on operating even when the president of the United States is completely disengaged and focused on other things, as he was this week.
Here’s what you need to know.
The government shut down for six hours
Senate leaders struck a deal to keep the government open, but the terms of the deal weren’t finalized until shortly before the shutdown deadline. That meant Sen. Rand Paul could singlehandedly slow things down enough to force a six-hour shutdown until the votes could be taken.
- Spending is back: Paul’s core objection (in which he’s joined by some other conservatives) is that the centerpiece of the deal is a $300 billion increase in government spending over the next two years, split roughly in half between military and nonmilitary programs.
- Smooth sailing in the Senate: Despite the antics, the bill sailed to an easy 71-28 margin in the Senate. The larger issue was in the House, where many safe-seat Democrats were angry about a not strictly related immigration issue.
- House progressives are grumpy: Given some conservative defections, passing the bill in the House required Democratic votes, and many Democrats felt the party should have stuck to its previous commitment to block government funding bills unless they got concessions on some kind of fix for DACA recipients. In the end, enough Dems voted yes for the bill to pass 240-186.
What the bill actually does
The legislation’s main impact is to lift spending caps that were imposed back in 2013 under the Budget Control Act, which resulted from the 2011 debt ceiling standoff and the failure of the “supercommittee” to achieve a grand bargain on deficit reduction.
- A huge boost in military spending: The biggest change, by far, is a massive $160 billion increase in the Pentagon’s budget that will go to new equipment and more intense training to address the brass’s concern about their “readiness” to fight new wars.
- A domestic policy smorgasbord: On the non-defense front, highlights are extensions of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and community health centers, boosts for the Child Care Development Block Grant, $80 billion in disaster relief, $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and $6 billion in opioid treatment.
- What’s next: Lifting the budget caps sets the table, at least in theory, for the passage of a series of normal appropriations bills that will give government agencies more ability to plan for the medium term than the continuing resolutions that have mostly funded the government recently.
DREAMers in the balance
Starting last fall, the spending issue started getting tied into immigration policy — originally because the White House wanted wall-building money. Then Trump canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and Democrats briefly rallied around the idea of insisting on some kind of DACA fix as part of a budget deal. Leadership ultimately abandoned that position, and the immigration issue remains outstanding.
- A limited hostage release: One way to think about the past few months is that Trump took the DREAMers hostage to get a wall, then Democrats took government funding hostage to get a DACA fix, and then Republicans took CHIP hostage to get government funding. Over the past two rounds of dealmaking, we’ve seen many of those hostages released, and immigration is now a standalone issue.
- It’s not about the wall anymore: The problem is that the White House has now clarified that the wall is not good enough for them. They are willing to agree to a fairly generous path to citizenship for DREAMers, but only in exchange for sweeping changes to the US immigration system that include huge cuts in legal immigration.
- The Senate is going to do ... something: The one piece of progress is that Mitch McConnell has agreed to allow an unusually open and unstructured debate on immigration legislation next week, one that crams together a bunch of different topics and could potentially offer a path forward, though the odds don’t look great.
Another senior White House official resigned in disgrace
White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned in disgrace after multiple allegations of domestic violence against ex-wives surfaced, and that’s only the beginning of the political scandal.
- John Kelly and others knew: It turns out White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and other senior officials were aware of the allegations for some time and dumped Porter not when they found out but only when the public did.
- Porter had no security clearance: Specifically, the FBI knew about the allegations and on those grounds had denied Porter a security clearance — a serious problem for someone whose main job is controlling the flow of paper in and out of the Oval Office.
- What’s next? Porter is dating White House communications director Hope Hicks and was a major ally of Kelly’s, so his downfall and the evidence of a multi-layered cover-up threatens the jobs of other senior Trump officials. On the other hand, no congressional Republicans seem interested in investigating any aspect of any of this.