Without an appetite to actually legislate in the midterm election year, Congress still has a job to do: keep the government open.
Lawmakers have to pass a spending bill by midnight March 23 or the government will run out of money and shut down — again.
The government has already shut down twice this year. The first shutdown came in January and lasted for three days, during a standoff over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then in February, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) effectively shut down the government himself, this time only for a few hours overnight, in a stand against a deal negotiated by congressional leaders that would bust the government budget caps on domestic and military spending that have been in place since 2013.
Now it’s government shutdown season again.
Having kicked down any permanent solution to government spending since September 2017, and currently on their fifth short-term spending bill, Congress appears to be working toward a more permanent funding package to carry them through to the start of the new fiscal year on September 30.
Already there’s been some head-butting between the parties. Republicans are trying to slip in conservative priorities — like defunding Planned Parenthood — and Democrats are pushing for a liberal spending agenda, prioritizing non-defense spending programs. While Democrats don’t have control of either chamber, they can block funding through a filibuster in the Senate. Republicans need at least nine Senate Democrats to sign on to their spending agenda for it to pass. Meanwhile, there’s still a big question mark over what the White House will sign on to. Over the weekend, President Trump called for the spending bill to defund “sanctuary cities,” which Democrats will almost certainly oppose.
But the calls in Congress for another government shutdown have quieted. Democrats seem fine with leaving major policies, like immigration and gun control, out of the government spending deal. And for now it’s just a final sprint for lawmakers to hammer out a deal.
This spending showdown will end in one of three ways
In February lawmakers set themselves up to reach a more permanent spending agreement by the end of March. Congress agreed to massive increases to domestic and defense spending over the next two years, raising funding for domestic programs by $128 billion and hiking defense budgets by $160 billion.
Since passing the budget deal, appropriators — the lawmakers in charge of the nation’s purse strings — have been negotiating how to actually allocate the money.
Congress has three options before March 23:
1) Congress will have passed a long-term spending bill. This would come in the form of an omnibus, which jams together 12 individual appropriations bills into one massive funding package. Senate and House appropriators have been working to write the omnibus over the past several weeks, but there are still policy hang-ups.
As Vox’s Dylan Scott explained, House Republicans are pushing to fully defund Planned Parenthood, which has long been attacked by conservatives for performing abortions at some of its clinics, by blocking Medicaid and several other federal funding sources from going toward the organization. This is a nonstarter for Democrats and will likely be a major point of contention as lawmakers continue to negotiate the specifics. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also cited concerns with some appropriations requests for Homeland Security but did not go into details.
At a rally in Pennsylvania over the weekend, Trump also made a call to defund sanctuary cities in the funding bill — which would be a nonstarter for Democrats. How far that demand goes in Congress remains to be seen.
2) Congress could buy itself more time. Lawmakers also have the option to give themselves another extension on the government shutdown deadline. By passing a short-term bill — a continuing resolution — Congress would be keeping spending levels at the status quo.
Already, rumblings among congressional staffers hint that negotiations could come down to another CR (It’s not clear how long a stopgap funding bill that could be). It would be the sixth stopgap spending bill this fiscal year — a reality that’s increasingly frustrated lawmakers, especially those with defense interests who say the military cannot properly plan its resources on short-term spending bills.
3) The government shuts down. Three government shutdowns in one year would certainly be historic. This would be the result of a complete failure in negotiations, or it could even come from the White House.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are likely much less eager go down that path, especially as we creep closer to midterm elections. But Trump has not shied away from threatening a government shutdown in the past, once even calling for one in order to get a win on his policy priorities.
It doesn’t look like there will be any immigration policy in this spending fight — unless Trump demands it
Behind both government shutdowns this year was a policy fight unrelated to government spending: immigration.
In January, Senate Democrats, frustrated with Trump’s unwillingness to accept a bipartisan proposal to address the nearly 700,000 immigrants in legal limbo under DACA, orchestrated a shutdown with the support of some Republicans. The result was a failed and inconclusive Senate floor debate on the issue.
Again in February, a conservative revolt over the budget deal meant that House Republicans, who have a big enough majority to pass legislation without Democratic support, suddenly needed votes from across the aisle. Rand Paul shut down the government, and House Democrats had to decide whether they would sign on to reopening it without any gains on immigration. Ultimately, House Democrats voted for the final bill.
Now Democrats seem to have changed their tune and seem less interested in tying immigration, or any big policy priorities, like gun control, to the spending fight. Immigration “doesn’t have to be on the omnibus bill,” Pelosi said this week. “But the omnibus bill has other problems in it.”
Trump has some immigration priorities of his own, however, calling on Congress to defund “sanctuary cities.”
“Today I am calling on Congress to stop funding sanctuary cities so we can save American lives,” Trump said at a rally over the weekend. “The funding bill should not give precious and massive taxpayer grants to cities aiding and abetting criminals.”
It’s not clear whether the White House will veto the spending bill over the measure, which will surely lose Democratic support.
Ironically, some Senate Republicans, like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, said the omnibus could see a short-term legislative extension of DACA in addition to some border security.
”That’s probably the most likely thing — when we write the funding of the government bill, we’ll extend DACA legislatively, making it legal for a year or two and kind of punting it,” Graham told reporters.
But the way things are going so far, even that might be too hopeful.