WASHINGTON – House Republican leaders presented their rank and file with a one-month spending bill Tuesday aimed at keeping the government open ahead of a Friday night deadline, as hopes for a deal on young undocumented immigrants faded.
The bill would extend existing spending levels through Feb. 16 and include an extension of a popular children’s health insurance program – aimed at winning Democratic votes – and a new sweetener for conservatives and Democrats alike in delaying several taxes included in the Affordable Care Act. Few lawmakers were enthusiastic about the legislation, but several described it as a necessary evil to avoid the first government shutdown since 2013.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said leaders urged lawmakers to get behind the bill and make sure it could garner the Republican votes needed without having to appeal to Democrats. “Keep the power of 218 going so you don’t weaken the majority position by having to get votes from the minority,” he said.
“We are where we are, and I think it’s important to fund the government and do these other things,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. MacArthur accused Democrats of “the height of stubbornness” if they vote against the bill because it doesn’t include a solution for “dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Shortly thereafter, leaders released the legislation online. They planned to test support Wednesday and bring the bill to a vote Thursday, according to multiple members. It was not immediately clear whether they would be successful.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus, said that the legislation doesn’t yet have the votes needed to pass and that he hasn’t decided how to vote. He dismissed the health-care tax delays as “window dressing.”
Assuming it passes the House, the bill would then head to the Senate.
Meanwhile, Democrats are seeking concessions and threatening to block even a short-term spending measure if they don’t get them.
“We don’t want to shut down the government – we never want to,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. “We want to keep the government open, but I will repeat, we’re not going to be held hostage to do things we think are contrary to the best interest of the American people.”
Democrats have leverage in the spending fight because their votes are needed to keep the government open – definitely in the Senate but possibly also in the House unless Republicans can unify behind the short-term proposal.
The bill released Tuesday night extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years and delays the implementation of two widely unpopular taxes included in the Affordable Care Act, one on medical devices and one on high-value “Cadillac” insurance plans. Both would delayed for two years. A third tax, on health insurers, would be delayed for a year.
White House legislative director Marc Short played down the chance of a shutdown, but he dismissed Democratic demands that any must-pass spending bill include a fix for the young immigrants who are losing deportation protections granted by the Obama administration.
“We think we will avoid a shutdown. It’s important to avoid a shutdown. You’ve seen the president’s messaging about the need to make sure that our troops are funded. I think you’ll see him continue to make that case,” Short told reporters after meeting with top congressional aides of both parties in the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“I’m not sure why funding our troops is tied to a deal for illegal aliens,” Short added.
Government funding runs out Friday at midnight. Unless new spending legislation passes before then, federal agencies will begin to shut down Saturday, sending federal workers home and halting taxpayer services.
But the spending fight has become tied up in the fate of the dreamers. Some 690,000 of these immigrants are already at risk of losing temporary work permits after President Trump canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected them from deportation. Others have already lost their protections, and the program will wind down entirely March 5 unless Congress acts.
Hoyer declined to say definitively whether Democrats would oppose the short-term spending bill. But he said Democrats did not want to vote in favor of a fourth short-term bill that continues existing spending levels absent an agreement for a broader two-year funding deal and a solution for immigrant youths.
Separately, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said her group of roughly three dozen Democrats will oppose a spending bill if there isn’t a fix for DACA and the dreamers.
“If we don’t get DACA fixed . . . that strategy will stay,” she said.
But a deal on dreamers looked ever more remote as senators on the Judiciary Committee grilled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about the immigration meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday in which Trump used derogatory language to describe Haiti and African countries.
She said she didn’t recall him uttering the phrase in question.
And in a new wrinkle that could further complicate talks, the administration appeared to boost its demands for funding for Trump’s border wall. The administration recently made public a request for $18 billion over 10 years for the wall, which Democrats rejected with outrage.
But Tuesday, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., suggested that Trump asked for even more during Thursday’s meeting, at which Durbin and Nielsen both were present.
“Do you remember the president saying he wanted $20 billion now and he would build that wall within one year?” Durbin asked Nielsen.
“I do remember him saying that,” Nielsen replied. “I remember him asking is there any way to authorize the full down payment of the wall such that we could have assurances that we could in fact build it.”
According to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, Trump wants Congress to fully authorize all of the wall money in exchange for a DACA fix. That is not a deal any Democrat would take, given the party’s opposition to Trump’s wall.
For their part, GOP defense hawks were fuming at the prospect of voting for a fourth stopgap, but some key lawmakers stopped short of threatening to oppose it and slammed Democrats for playing politics with the military.
“In one way or another, you cannot allow somebody to continue to play political games given the state of the world and the state of our military,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who remained undecided about his support Tuesday evening.
He said that he was unsure whether a government shutdown would ultimately help defense spending levels. “There’s various theories on that,” he said. “Does it draw attention to the problem? Or is it just more drama that doesn’t really help the military? I don’t know.”
Democrats, too, were uncertain where the blame would fall if they pushed the government into shutdown over immigration. Many have been hesitant to pursue that strategy, although their resolve appears to have been strengthened by the furor around last week’s Oval Office meeting, where Trump reportedly referred to “shithole” countries in Africa and questioned the need for more Haitians in the United States.
Hoyer said that for Democrats in the minority, the possibilities for leverage are few.
“We don’t have very many tools available to us to say, ‘Look, let’s get to issue on matters on which we should agree,’ ” he said.
In the Senate, at least nine Democrats would have to join all Republicans for the spending bill to get the 60 votes needed to pass. Democrats from red states, including those up for reelection next year, may be hard-pressed to oppose a must-pass spending bill, especially one that includes funding for the children’s health plan.
Newly elected Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who campaigned in support of funding the insurance program, acknowledged Tuesday that “it’s going to be tough” for him to vote against a spending bill that reauthorizes the program.
In addition to a fix for dreamers, Democrats are pushing for discretionary domestic spending to match military spending in the two-year budget deal lawmakers are trying to write. Republicans are opposed to that, but some members of both parties say that if immigration were resolved, other issues would fall into place, including the broader spending plan and a disaster-relief bill for Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
As the squabbling continued among lawmakers, more than 300 immigrants with DACA protections poured into the Senate’s office buildings Tuesday to pressure key Republicans to swiftly pass a bill that would grant them U.S. citizenship. Among those with the protections were a nurse, a teacher, and college students from Texas, Arizona, New York, Idaho, Florida and other states. They said they hoped to avoid a government shutdown.
“Our goal is for the Dream Act to be passed by January 19,” said Edwin Romero, a 26-year-old legal assistant brought to the United States from Mexico when he was 6. “The Republicans have the power in the House, the Senate and the White House. So if there is a government shutdown, it’s on them. It’s in their hands.”
On Tuesday, Trump appeared to dig in over his demands for a “great wall.”
“We must have Security at our VERY DANGEROUS SOUTHERN BORDER, and we must have a great WALL to help protect us, and to help stop the massive inflow of drugs pouring into our country!” Trump tweeted.
The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe, Damian Paletta and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.