On January 19, a week from Friday, Congress will face its first major legislative challenge of 2018: figuring out how to fund the federal government for the rest of the year, or at least keep the lights on a bit longer.
This is hardly new territory for this Congress. Legislators blew off their funding responsibilities last September to focus on tax cuts, choosing to keep the government running at previous funding levels until December 8, then passed two more stopgap measures that month to keep the doors open until next week. But with each vote, it’s been harder to get legislators onboard with short-term fixes.
With pressure building to get it over with and fund the government through the end of this fiscal year, you might think legislators might be able to cut a deal this time. But you’d be wrong. They’re are so far from hashing this out that they’ll likely try to kick the can down the road again. The only questions are how far they’ll try to kick it, and if they can come up with a short-term fix a critical mass of legislators can buy into, or if they’ll finally slide into a full-on federal shutdown.
The frustrating thing about this prolonged funding battle is that the funding itself isn’t the real problem. Just about everyone in Congress is anxious about looming across-the-board automatic budget cuts that will be triggered unless they can come up with a deal on raising budget caps in the next few weeks. There’s been some public partisan bickering about how much to raise spending, with Republicans arguing for more defense than non-defense spending, and Democrats demanding parity. But few in Congress want to see those cuts kick in. So most observers think that, in a crunch, legislators could bury the hatchet and come up with tolerable top-line spending numbers.
“The numbers being floated right now have been fairly stable for a couple months,” argued Congress watcher Joshua Huder. The problem is, “that agreement is getting caught up in other issues.”
Funding bills are must-pass items, and thus ideal vehicles for legislators to use to try to muscle through unrelated priorities. And Congress started 2018 with a metric shit-ton of unfinished business to attend to. There’s been pressure to wrap a long-term reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) into any deal next week, as well as disaster relief, stabilization for the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance marketplaces, and any number of other program reauthorizations neglected in 2017.
“The number of moving parts… is part of why this whole episode has dragged on as long as it has,” said Congress watcher Molly Reynolds.
Not all of these issues are that controversial. CHIP, for instance, is an extremely popular program that only got punted because of disagreements about how to pay for its reauthorization. But recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office suggests it’d be much cheaper to renew than expected, making it an easier sell for inclusion in any sort of upcoming funding deal.
The real sticking point is the effort to negotiate a fix for the “Dreamers,” about 800,000 people who came to America as undocumented children and who were granted the ability to live and work without fear of deportation by a 2012 Barack Obama executed order. Trump announced he was ending that policy, called DACA, in September, then called on Congress to find a legislative solution to allow the group to stay in America, as the vast majority of the country believes they should be able to do. (This week, a federal judge in California blocked Trump’s move to end DACA, a decision that may be appealed.)
Republicans are open to cutting a deal on this, but their leaders want it to be a standalone bill, ideally after funding is dealt with, since protections for most Dreamers don’t expire until March 5. But Democrats are demanding it be part of the current funding deal to resolve this issue quickly.
Anyone following Dreamer negotiations over the last week probably has whiplash by now. Last Friday, the Trump administration put out a list of immigration reforms they wanted as part of any deal to restore protections for Dreamers. It included, among other things, $18 billion for 700 miles of Trump’s infamous border wall (which now may be a fence), even more funding for border security, penalties for so-called “sanctuary cities,” mandatory employee immigration status verifications for employers, an end to the diversity visa lottery system, and a rollback of the ability of immigrants to sponsor their family members.
On Tuesday, Trump seemingly backed off in a meeting with legislators, during which he was often incoherent and seemed confused about his own priorities and positions, saying that he’d accept any bill Congress agreed on. Lawmakers left with a broad framework tying protections and a path to citizenship for Dreamers to border security funding and changes to the immigration system, but no details.
Then on Thursday, another bipartisan group of lawmakers approached Trump with a plan they’d been working on for some time but that conveniently fit the framework he’d agreed to on Tuesday. In exchange for Dreamer protections and a path to citizenship, they’d offer $2.7 billion in border security funding, including $1.6 billion for a wall. They’d also make it harder for immigrants to sponsor family members to come to America, and end the diversity lottery system. shifting those immigration slots over to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visas for individuals fleeing natural disasters or civil wars abroad. Trump rejected that plan—and reportedly asked why America needed immigrants from “shithole countries" like those covered by TPS visas; he’d also recently moved to end TPS status for 200,000 people from El Salvador who have been living in the US since 2001. This instability makes the prospect of a deal in the next week seem pretty unlikely.
Even if legislators are suddenly able to break their stalemate on the Dreamers issue and settle on baseline funding levels, said Huder, at this point a short-term funding measure keeping the government going on 2017 spending levels is inevitable. “The next step is to draft an omnibus appropriations bill to actually keep the government open,” he said. That “will be well over 1,000 pages of legislative text. It will take some time to write.” Lawmakers would likely need a short-term spending bill to buy them time to write a longer-term one.
Legislators are just debating how long they should punt the issue, with some talking about going up to mid-February and others about early March. A longer-term bill would mean they feel they are close to a deal and need time to draft funding legislation, said Huder, while shorter-term would mean they may want “to create another crisis point to instigate talks.”
The problem is that many legislators on both sides of the aisle might not be willing to take a clean short-term funding deal at this point. Many within the Democratic Party and its base don’t want to let any funding measure, even a short-term fix, pass without including a Dreamers provision. If they forced their ideal outcome, say a Dreamers fix as part of a short-term funding bill that did not fund a wall, Trump could throw a fit and refuse to sign the legislation.
Defense hawks in the GOP, meanwhile, are making a lot of noise about how further short-term funding fixes could jeopardize the military’s ability to carry out operations. They might refuse to vote for any short-term deal that lasts too long, or doesn’t contain some ironclad guarantee about a massive spike in defense funding. And fiscal conservatives might try to block any funding measure that gives money to things like CHIP or disaster relief without clear offsets, or at least promises of future budget cuts.
Basically, this means next week will be a big game of chicken. Legislative leaders will have to make their best guess about how long they can stretch a short-term funding measure, and how many ancillary provisions they can toss into it without losing a critical mass of votes on either side of the political divide. Then both parties will have to test how far they’re willing to run toward a shutdown to force concessions.
The Democrats will have a great deal of leverage in this nail-biting last-minute showdown, said Huder. They don’t have much incentive to cooperate with Republicans, and can be fairly certain, given recent historical precedent, that the GOP would suffer more in the midterm elections if a shutdown occurred now. Meanwhile, Republicans need their votes to pass any funding measure through the Senate.
“The only remaining question” for Democrats, said Huder, “is whether they have the political will in their caucus to take a potentially risky political stance in an election year.”
In other words, nearly anything could happen next week. We could see a punt on everything until March, or we could see resolution to almost every outstanding legislative issue wrapped up in this short-term funding fix, or the government could shut down. Stay tuned.
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