Over the past four months, Congress has passed four short-term bills to keep the government running at the current budget levels, infuriating those who want more for all the various military and domestic programs funded by Washington. But on Tuesday, leaders in the Senate finally said they were close to striking a deal to boost the budget and quell the cries of Democrats and Republicans who want to escape caps that cripple spending.
An agreement has not yet been reached, but members and other sources said the leadership is negotiating a two-year budget that would increase spending by hundreds of billions of dollars.
“I'm optimistic that very soon we'll be able to reach an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at his press conference in the Capitol Tuesday.
“It sounds like we’re going to deem a budget, get funding for two years, and move on down the road,” added Sen. David Perdue. “There is a growing sense that we’ve got to fix this budget process.”
In January, Senate Democrats blocked a spending bill, shutting down the government for three days, over concerns that Republicans in the majority would not extend legal protections to about 700,000 "Dreamers" who illegally came to the country as children. Democrats decided to vote to open the government back up after McConnell promised the Senate would proceed to debate a host of immigration issues after Feb. 8. And it doesn’t appear Democrats would be willing to engage in the same shutdown tactics again.
“There’s no appetite for continuing that kind of approach,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a longtime Democratic advocate for the Dreamers. “I sincerely hope I never face that again.”
Congress hasn’t gotten much closer on striking a long-sought immigration deal, which bedeviled Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. On Tuesday, President Trump complicated matters further when he said at a White House event, referring to border-security measures, “I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”
Now Congress must pass another short-term spending bill by Thursday or face another shutdown. House Republicans have proposed a bill that would extend only the military’s funding through September, while the rest of the federal government’s programs would see their funding expire on March 23. Senate Democrats will block that bill, arguing that there should be parity between increases in military spending and domestic spending, and that the entire government should be funded on the same schedule.
“From the very beginning of the budget debate, Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday. “We support an increase in funding for our military and our middle class.”
Even though the stand-off leaves Congress with only two days to pass something, members are confident that they’ll avert a shutdown by passing a fifth short-term bill this fiscal year in order to give themselves more time to write the broader appropriations legislation.
Some members of Congress would like to add other must-pass measures to the bill averting a shutdown. In addition to keeping the government open, Congress also is looking to pass more than $80 billion in disaster relief, including for those in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico whose homes were ravaged by hurricanes. It also has deadlines in March to raise the debt ceiling and to extend funding to the community health centers that serve more than 27 million people in low-income areas.
“We have a long menu of overdue homework items for the Senate,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. “My hope would be that we can this week come to a universal agreement on all of those items, and then move them all forward as a group and clear the decks here.”
But the more they try to do, the harder it will be, especially in such little time. House Democrats are supposed to go to a retreat this week, but will likely have to postpone their plans in order to pass a bill to keep the government open.
And even if they do add those items to a short-term spending bill, the negotiations for longer-term appropriations legislation will have to coincide with a divisive debate over immigration.
The White House has released a framework addressing four areas: granting legal status to the Dreamers; boosting border security by $25 billion; sharply curtailing family-based migration, which accounts for the vast majority of green cards per year; and overhauling the diversity visa lottery.
But Democrats strongly object to the president’s plan to cut legal immigration by limiting family sponsorships only to spouses and minor children, barring Americans from petitioning for their parents, adult children, or siblings to join them. And some Republicans also prefer a narrower approach that doesn’t touch legal immigration.
In an interview with reporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key Republican player in the immigration debate, said that against his hopes Congress may shift to a backup plan extending legal protections for the Dreamers and increasing border security.
“This is where I think we’re headed,” he said. “It’s the fallback position—Plan B.”