By Erica Werner,
A week from a government shutdown deadline, lawmakers had no clear path to a deal Friday, each side was already blaming the other for a potential failure, and emboldened Democrats seized on President Trump’s incendiary comments about immigrants to insist they would hold firm in their demands.
A shutdown Jan. 20 would come on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, but the president himself appeared to have made the path to bipartisan compromise tougher with his Oval Office comments about immigrants from “shithole countries.”
Trump’s remarks sent lawmakers into their corners on the divisive issue. And even though GOP leaders insist that immigration negotiations should be separate from talks on a two-year spending deal, they acknowledge that they have become inextricably linked because Democratic votes are needed to keep the government open in the Senate and potentially in the House.
Democrats are intent on using that leverage to force a solution for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought here as youths. With no deal on the horizon for those “dreamers,” who face losing temporary protections granted by the Obama administration, there was also no obvious solution to keep the government open.
“As a House member I look at this as a Senate problem, and their issues have complicated our capacity to do simple functions of funding the government,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy whip in the House. “This is a stubborn minority that has extraneous political problems they’re trying to bring into the funding of government,” McHenry said, referring to immigration.
Democrats, who are under intense pressure from immigrant advocates to oppose any spending legislation without a deal for dreamers, countered that Trump was to blame for complicating matters.
“The president’s racist outburst suggests he is more interested in fighting culture wars than solving problems,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “That sends a bad signal about his ability to be a constructive part of reaching a spending agreement or meeting any other challenge we face.”
There will be just a handful of legislative days to forge a deal when lawmakers return next week from the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Few expect that an agreement will be reached in that time on immigration and government-wide spending for military and domestic programs, as well as children’s health insurance and disaster relief, which are also tied up in the talks.
That means the only option for keeping the government running would be a fourth short-term “continuing resolution” that extends existing spending levels to give negotiators more time. But whether that could pass is uncertain, and if it doesn’t, the government will begin to shut down Jan. 20, with parks closing and nonessential workers furloughed.
Many Democrats have been cautious about saying they would oppose spending legislation — and force a shutdown — over immigration. But Trump’s comments disparaging Haitian immigrants and African nations have clearly stiffened their spines. And although Republicans contend that Democrats would take the blame if the government shut down, many Democrats scoff since Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“Why is a Democrat going to sign on to a bill that may represent a compromise on what they really want if they think the president’s just going to veto it?” asked Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Republicans plan to make it as hard as possible for Democrats to oppose a spending bill, including potentially linking the legislation to an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and perhaps disaster aid for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. They plan multiple votes and intend to use the same arguments Democrats employed against the GOP during a 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013, when federal workers had to go without pay while some taxpayer services were closed.
But must-pass spending legislation next week also faces a threat from within the Republican ranks. Defense hawks insist that more money is needed for the military, and they have grown frustrated with passing bills that extend existing spending levels without giving the Pentagon the increase military leaders say is necessary to ensure readiness.
“While we’re under the CR [continuing resolution] our troops aren’t getting the increased funding we’ve committed to do in the House, and that needs to be a nonpartisan issue,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who said he would consider opposing another continuing resolution depending on the final package.
House GOP leaders fear that a revolt from fed-up defense hawks could imperil their ability to pass a spending bill with Republican votes alone, which would hand Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the leverage to make demands on immigration or other issues.
The dynamics add up to an unusually uncertain outlook, with many lawmakers reluctant to predict how events will play out.
“I don’t think there will be” a government shutdown, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said at a WisPolitics event at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee on Friday, but he offered few specifics.
“We will get this done,” Ryan said, in response to a question on children’s health funding. “Exactly when, I’m not so sure.”
On the spending piece, lawmakers are trying to strike a two-year deal setting new spending levels for military and domestic programs, and staving off automatic spending caps.
The White House wants the discretionary number for defense spending to be about $603 billion, which is $54 billion more than the $549 billion that would kick in for the 2018 fiscal year under the automatic spending caps established in 2011. Congressional defense hawks are seeking even more, but Democrats are demanding “parity,” meaning that nondefense spending should increase by the same amount as military spending.
Republicans reject the parity demand and insist on offsetting cuts for any spending increases. Democrats argue that since Republicans passed a $1.5 trillion tax bill that will add to the debt, they have no grounds for calling for offsets.
Despite the disputes, some lawmakers contend that a deal could fall quickly into place if immigration could be resolved.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.