Senate Takes a Break From Dysfunction

The chamber managed to strike an agreement to end the government shutdown. Is a bigger deal on immigration coming next, or just more partisanship?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor after reaching an agreement to advance a bill ending the government shutdown Monday.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Jan. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

In a leap of faith, Democratic senators decided to reopen the federal government Monday after causing a three-day shutdown, taking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at his word that he intends to take up a bill in the next couple of weeks that bolsters border security and grants legal status to almost 800,000 people who illegally came to the country as children.

The Senate’s 81-18 vote represented a break from the rounds of recrimination during President Trump’s first year in office, a brief respite from the political attacks and name-calling that has imperiled relations between the parties and led to the government’s funding to lapse for the first time in five years.

It remains to be seen whether a few more weeks to negotiate will result in the most significant overhaul to immigration law in decades, or another moment signifying the demise of bipartisanship in Washington.

“We are working to find that place of trust,” said Tim Kaine, one of 28 Democratic senators to change his or her vote from Friday to Monday. “I hope we will.”

Under the leadership of McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, Congress spent most of 2017 focused on successful Republican campaigns to slash taxes, confirm conservative judges, reduce government regulations, and an unsuccessful one to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. After blocking President Obama and Democrats from confirming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Antonin Scalia, McConnell and Republican senators also changed rules so they could confirm Neil Gorsuch without requiring Democratic votes.

And last fall, the Trump administration announced that it would rescind by March 5 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides the "Dreamers" legal protection from deportation, giving Congress a deadline to enshrine into law what Obama created under executive action.

In December, McConnell acknowledged that 2017 was “pretty partisan,” but 2018 didn’t start out any better. Over the past few weeks, Capitol Hill has been consumed by comments made by the president in a private meeting, in which he reportedly expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway rather than “shithole” countries in Africa.

Some Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights hero, have called Trump a racist, a charge that the president denied. Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who were in the controversial meeting, initially said they didn’t remember the president’s comments, and then said that another attendee, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, mischaracterized them, impugning his integrity.

Armed with a stick passed around so one wouldn’t talk over the other—a present from Heidi Heitkamp to Susan Collins years ago—a bipartisan group comprising about a quarter of the Senate met over the weekend to reach a deal to reopen the government and pass the fourth short-term spending bill in five months.

Democratic members said Monday that they were pleased McConnell publicly announced on the Senate floor his intention to allow a bill that would address the Dreamers by Feb. 8, when the short-term spending bill expires.

“I think there’s the ironclad commitment that we will have DACA on the floor,” Sen. Bill Nelson said.

But the lack of trust between Democrats and Republicans and between Congress and the White House was still apparent on the day the government opened. McConnell tried to restore it by saying the immigration debate would have “a level playing field at the outset, and an amendment process that is fair to all sides.” Even though the short-term spending bill included a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides care to nearly nine million children,liberal activists were deeply frustrated by Democrats for opening the government back up, saying they relinquished leverage to attract a stronger deal for the Dreamers.

Members who voted against the spending bill essentially told McConnell that his word wasn’t enough.

“He did not make a commitment,” Sen. Kamala Harris said.

And the fissures between immigration hard-liners and moderates weren’t healed. Last week, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham blamed Cotton and White House senior staffer Stephen Miller, respectively, for pulling Trump to the right on immigration, blowing up the negotiations.

On Monday, Cotton fired back. While there’s an “opportunity” to pass a bipartisan immigration bill, the senator said he’s “beginning to doubt” that one can include Schumer and Durbin.

“They go into a meeting,” Cotton said of Democrats to reporters. “They don’t get exactly what they want. They run out to all of you. They claim that some crazy deal was made. And then when we say there was no deal made, they accuse Republicans and the president of reneging on the deal.”

“That’s not exactly a way to build good faith and trust in these negotiations,” he added.

Republicans and red-state Democrats have stymied efforts during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations to create a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, including through a comprehensive Senate bill in 2013 that would have also provided legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Another failure on immigration reform during Trump’s presidency wouldn’t be surprising.

But Durbin, an original sponsor of the 2001 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, said that McConnell’s pledge Monday gives Congress a chance to return to the issue for the first time in five years.

“He never promised a deal,” said Durbin. “He promised an opportunity.”

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