An impasse over immigration threatens the first government shutdown in four years. If the Senate doesn’t vote to pass a temporary bill to fund the government by midnight tonight, the federal government will be forced to close its doors.
Increasingly, the only legislating that gets done in Washington happens on the brink. It’s been years since Congress passed a regular budget to fund the government. Instead, last-minute spending bills called continuing resolutions (CRS) have been used to keep the government open temporarily at previous spending levels. Lawmakers have repeatedly walked up to the precipice of a shutdown over the last few years, but in the end, have managed to find enough votes to get a stopgap spending measure approved. But, this time looks to be different.
Governing on the Brink
This brinkmanship is a symptom of the broad distrust not only between the parties but within them. Although Republicans control Congress, intransigent factions within the party like the conservative Freedom Caucus have refused to support spending measures, forcing Republican leaders to rely on Democrats to cobble together enough votes to avoid a government shutdown. This time the votes from Democrats may not be there.
Over the past few years, the threat of a shutdown has become a source of leverage for lawmakers to press issues. The last time the government shutdown in 2013, conservative Republicans refused to vote for a spending bill unless Obamacare was defunded. This time, Democrats are refusing to vote for a funding measure unless it includes a permanent fix for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which allows undocumented immigrants that arrived as children to stay in the country.
But, GOP immigration hard-liners will only support a DACA fix as part of a broader immigration reform package that includes border security funding, including money for President Trump’s border wall; an end to so-called “chain migration,” the practice of allowing naturalized U.S. citizens to sponsor relatives to come to the United States; and a merit-based immigration system.
The House managed to pass a continuing resolution on Thursday night after members of the Freedom Caucus agreed to vote yes. But, in the Senate, things are much less clear. There, 60 votes are needed to pass the bill. With only 51 Republican votes, Senate leaders will need at least some Democratic votes. But, those votes don’t appear to be forthcoming.
Democrats have drawn a hard line over the DACA fix, and they’re under heavy pressure from liberal activists to not back down. Politically, Democrats calculate that they have a winning issue. The majority of the country, including a majority of Republicans, support a DACA fix. So, they reckon that they’re fighting on solid ground.
Republicans are not opposed to a DACA fix, but want broader immigration reforms in return. Last week, there appeared to be progress towards a compromise. But, things quickly unraveled when a controversy erupted over a crude remark allegedly made by President Trump.
Washington Melts Down
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said that President Trump referred to African and Latin American nations as “sh—thole countries” in an immigration meeting at the White House last week. Washington promptly melted down.
Things were already plenty acrimonious on Capitol Hill. The back and forth over whether Trump is a racist further poisoned the well, leaving no one in any mood for compromise.
As prospects for a larger immigration deal faded, Republican leaders changed tack and mounted a last-ditch attempt to avert a shutdown with a temporary spending bill that would fund the government through February 16th. This, they hope, will allow more time to get the immigration talks back on track.
As a sweetener to Democrats and moderate Republicans, the CR includes a six-year extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). CHIP provides health insurance to low-income children and enjoys wide bipartisan support. The program expired in September and is quickly running out of money.
But, the GOP’s proposed stop-gap spending measure does not include the DACA fix Democrats wanted. The CR only managed to attract 6 Democrats voting in favor. That doesn’t bode well for its prospects in the Senate.
Mixed messages from the White House have further complicated matters. The White House officially supports the CR. But, Thursday morning, a tweet from President Trump opposing the inclusion of CHIP in a temporary spending bill threatened to upend the plan. The reason for Trump’s Tweet is not altogether clear. But, with all but 11 House Republicans voting in favor of the CR including CHIP, its effect appears to have been limited.
By late afternoon Friday, Senate Republican leaders were scrambling to find some way to salvage the bill. But, with Democrats digging in their heels and at least one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul a declared “No,” it’s hard to see how.