A week ago, there was bipartisan bliss. Now Washington has once again descended into partisan theatrics. If bipartisan progress had been made on the draft immigration proposal crafted by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Graham (R-SC), we probably would not have heard about the President’s foul language just yet. Despite all this, Democrats continue to work with Republicans on a solution. However, if President Trump remains aligned with the immigration hardliners, there is little prospect of an agreement on Dreamers (children brought illegally to the US). And without that, Democrats cannot support longer-term government funding. Paradoxically, a centrist immigration proposal could most likely pass both chambers of Congress (if introduced), which is also why conservatives needed the President to blow up the process.
Government funding caught in the middle
As a result, a long-term funding bill for the federal government cannot pass by Friday. The Republican leadership has therefore turned to yet another short-term fix – a continuing resolution (CR) – as they did before Christmas. The plan from the House Republican leadership includes funding through 16 February combined with a delay of some health-care related taxes and a six-year extension of funding for the childrens’ health program (CHIP). The latter is designed to win over moderate Democrats.
If a funding bill is not approved, most non-vital government services and the federal bureaucracy will shut down. That happens at midnight Friday. Most Americans would not notice – unless they plan to visit a national park.
Who gains from a government shutdown?
The situation is complicated by political calculations. President Trump has long debated whether a shutdown would be popular with his base, if he could make it about immigration, the border wall and the Washington swamp. Democrats are inspired by election victories in Virginia and Alabama in late 2017 – enabled by a surge in turnout among minorities and younger people. These groups are very energized by the immigration debate, so while Trump may please his base, he is also helping the opposition. Early jockeying for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary election is already pushing progressives to take a hard stand.
However, the situation is tricky for Democratic senators running for reelection in November in conservative, mostly white states like Indiana (Donnelly), North Dakota (Heitkamp), Montana (Tester), Missouri (McCaskill) and West Virginia (Manchin). In total, ten Democratic senators are on the ballot in states won by Trump. Voters here are less likely to be sympathetic to the tradeoff between a fiscal showdown and securing the legal status of illegal immigrants. That could create a split in the hitherto united Democratic front, something Democratic leaders are seeking to avoid. History is also not on the side of those forcing a shutdown. Republicans have done it twice (1995 and 2013) and paid a heavy price in both instances.
The situation is just as complicated for the congressional Republican leadership. There is overwhelming popular support for a solution for Dreamers, and the President’s “shithole” comment has not been helpful in the attempts to craft a narrative. Moreover, a fiscal brawl is likely to take focus away from the tax cuts, just as they are supposed to show up on people’s payslips. It would also highlight – once again – that the Republican party is not united in government.
With the delayed taxes and the six-year extension of CHIP, the Republican leadership has probably won over enough votes to avoid a shutdown this time, although some conservative Republicans remain uncommitted and defense hawks want funding for the military to run the full budget year. Changes to the bill in a conservative direction could take away necessary Democratic support in the Senate. Even if funding is secured for now, the legal status of Dreamers has to be resolved soon – 5 March is the current deadline set by President Trump. Hence, this is most likely the last short-term funding bill Democrats can support.