WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Congress have abandoned efforts to reach a broad budget agreement before federal funding runs out on Friday, and they’re now simply hoping to pass a short-term spending bill to avert a government shutdown.
House GOP leaders are crafting legislation that would keep the government funded through Feb. 16. It would also reauthorize a children’s health insurance program for six years — a provision added to woo Democrats. And it would delay several unpopular taxes included in the Affordable Care Act — a sweetener for conservatives.
But whether that combination is enough to get it through the House and Senate is far from certain. Conservatives and liberals alike have raised objections to pass another short-term spending bill, increasing the chances of a shutdown as lawmakers lurch toward the Jan. 19 deadlines.
“There shouldn’t be a shutdown, but there could be,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania.
Negotiations over a broader budget agreement have stalled over several issues, but the two biggest sticking points are total spending levels for the fiscal year 2018, which began in October, and protections for the so-called Dreamers, immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Without a solution to shield those immigrants from deportation, many Democrats in the House and Senate said they would oppose a short-term spending bill. It’s one of the few points of leverage Democrats have to win concessions in that contentious immigration fight.
“These are American citizens in every single way but a piece of paper,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said of the Dreamers. Many of these young immigrants are working in the U.S as teachers, first responders, and military personnel, Booker said, “and I’m not going to leave them behind.”
But Republican leaders say they will not attach an immigration bill to the spending measure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that lawmakers have until March to reach a compromise on the Dreamers. That’s when the Trump administration will formally end an Obama-era program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that gives temporary legal status and work permits to the Dreamers.
“With no imminent deadline … there’s no reason why Congress should hold government funding hostage over the issue of illegal immigration,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The debate over the Dreamers has become extremely contentious in the wake of President Trump’s comments last week at a White House meeting on the issue. Trump allegedly said he’d rather have more immigrants from Norway, a predominately white country, and fewer from “shithole countries” in Africa and said the U.S. didn’t need any more people from Haiti.
Trump also flatly rejected a bipartisan agreement to create a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, even though it also included other items he had demanded. Most notably, the agreement called for $2.8 billion in funding for fencing and other border security measures that Trump requested.
Proponents of the deal continued to gather support despite the White House’s opposition, saying it was the only realistic proposal on the table.
“It’s the only game in town, and we’re making steady progress in building support,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. He said text of the bill would be unveiled on Wednesday.
Republicans need Democratic votes for any spending bill to pass the Senate, where the GOP holds a thin 51-49 majority.
In the House, Republicans have a larger margin but they may face a revolt from within their own ranks for a short-term spending bill, also known as a continuing resolution or “CR”. Conservatives are irked that Republican leaders have failed to reach a broader budget deal that funds the military for the rest of the fiscal year. And they do not want to support another a stop-gap bill — especially if it just means GOP leaders will have more time to negotiate with Democrats.
“The later you get in the fiscal year, the more difficult it is for the Defense Department to spend that money wisely,” said GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who worries about the effects of short-term spending bills on the military.
Asked if he could vote for the latest stop-gap bill. Byrne said he wasn’t sure. “I’m struggling,” he said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, echoed concerns about funding the military in short, unpredictable bursts. But there’s even “greater frustration,” Meadows said, over the leadership’s plan to punt yet again on broader budget decisions.
“We’re very frustrated that this continues to be the same song, different dance,” said Rep. Mark Walker, also a North Carolina Republican who leads another faction of House conservatives.