The Senate just voted to end the government shutdown

January 22, 2018

Now, it heads to the House. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

After a three-day standoff, Senate Democrats and Republicans have voted to reopen the government — but only for three weeks.

In a last-minute decision, Senate Democrats agreed to pass a spending bill that would fund the federal government through February 8, and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, with an assurance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to negotiate some kind of immigration deal within that time period and put a bill on the floor for a vote. Now the spending bill goes to the House, before being signed into law by President Donald Trump. All these steps are expected to happen so federal workers can resume work Tuesday. 

The Senate failed to pass a spending bill Friday night, shutting down the government after Democrats and several Republicans handily voted down a House bill that would have extended the shutdown deadline to February 16. Since then, Democrats have been trying to extract firm assurances from Republican leaders, in hopes a bipartisan immigration bill will land on President Trump’s desk.

Lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with the state of immigration negotiations in recent months. Republicans have punted on finding a legislative fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program since September, when the Trump administration announced it would end the program by March 5. They’ve also kicked down more permanent budget negotiations, instead passing three short-term spending deals since October 1 — the latest extends current spending levels for another three weeks.

At this point, it’s not clear a couple weeks of immigration negotiations can resolve what has become an anarchic congressional debate over immigration. On Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has been leading some bipartisan immigration negotiations in the Senate, said they were “inside the 10-yard line,” but Trump’s role in the debate is still up in the air. Trump spun negotiations into chaos last week after reportedly calling some countries “shitholes” in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, and continues to engage immigration hardliners who seem unwilling to compromise with Democrats.

There’s still a chance it could all go haywire in the days ahead. For the time being, lawmakers have reopened the government and have a lot of work to do.

Now they have to actually “finish up” immigration and spending talks

Congress has only bought itself a little more time. The idea is that they will cobble together a deal on immigration and more permanent government spending in the weeks ahead.

But that won’t be easy. So far, Trump has been presented with one bipartisan proposal on immigration and shot it down.

The agreement — reached by a bipartisan group of six senators led by Graham, fellow Republican Jeff Flake (AZ), and Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (IL) — would give DACA beneficiaries (known as DREAMers) a chance at legal status and a path to citizenship while restricting them from sponsoring their parents, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, and funding some border projects. The agreement was panned by congressional conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who increasingly have had the president’s ear on the issue.

Meadows told reporters Friday that Trump has assured Cotton and him that the White House would not support any immigration bill that does not have their approval, which could throw a wrench into DACA negotiations.

The shutdown also brought together a larger group of bipartisan negotiators — roughly 30 senators who have called themselves the “Common Sense Coalition,” who are intent on moving immigration talks forward.

There’s only one immigration working group with White House involvement — a 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). 

This group ramped up negotiations in recent days but have yet to come forward with a proposal. Durbin said the No. 2s only recently started actually discussing the specifics of an immigration proposal in the past few days. 

Democrats’ concerns that Trump’s conditions will only push immigration talks to the right are not unmerited. In order to win enough House Republican votes for the short-term spending bill, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised the Freedom Caucus, the lower chamber’s ultraconservatives, that Republican leadership would whip votes for a conservative immigration bill, likely similar to one put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). That partisan proposal is unlikely to garner any Democratic support.

Conservatives continue to say there is a path to compromise, but they have shown no willingness to work with Democrats. Meanwhile, Congress remains in the dark over what Trump actually wants from an immigration deal.

Congress still has to actually figure out government spending

On top of immigration, Congress still has to strike a permanent spending deal for 2018.

So far, the parties still haven’t agreed on new budget caps, which put a hard upper limit on spending for defense and domestic programs. Without budget caps, any massive spending bill risks triggering a sequester — across-the-board cuts to domestic and military spending.

Republicans need Democratic votes to raise the budget caps on military spending and domestic programs.

It all goes back to 2011, when an Obama-era impasse over the debt ceiling brought the American economy to near calamity. The ultimate result was the 2013 sequester, which set into law across-the-board budget cuts and established caps that would amount to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.

Since the 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. There’s no question that Trump wants Congress to do that again. 

Last year, Trump’s budget called for $603 billion in defense funding, and both the Senate and House separately proposed even higher figures. 

Congress has repeatedly voted to raise the budget caps and give sequester relief, 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.

Democrats have established a guiding principle in spending cap negotiations: If Republicans want more funding for defense, then Democrats want a one-for-one increase in non-defense funding. This time, however, that agreement hit a snag.

Appropriators need these topline numbers to begin putting together a trillion-dollar spending bill that would fund the government through next September. 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 adequately plan resources.


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