Uncertainty Abounds as Shutdown Deadline Nears

Uncertainty Abounds as Shutdown Deadline Nears
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With three days remaining before the government runs out of money, lawmakers have yet to settle on a strategy to keep the lights on -- and resolve multiple extraneous but significant issues including health care, immigration and defense spending.

Republicans are eyeing a short-term stopgap measure -- a continuing resolution, or CR -- to avoid a shutdown this week and kick the broader debate about spending to later in December. But there is disagreement within the House GOP conference about how long that short-term measure should last, with some conservatives pushing for a later date than party leadership wants.

Republicans had been expecting to consider that short-term legislation in the House Rules Committee Tuesday, but delayed that by a day, needing more time to negotiate within the conference. Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to say how they would vote on a stopgap measure this week, but a Whip Steny Hoyer suggested Tuesday that Republicans should not count on Democratic votes.

The amount of government funding itself is an issue -- lawmakers hope to negotiate spending levels that go above mandatory sequestration budget caps, but have yet to reach an agreement on those numbers. The main complication, however, involves myriad extraneous issues that could get tied into the spending debate.

Democrats, and several dozen moderate Republicans, want to see a legislative solution for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children -- known as “Dreamers” -- before the end of the year. Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate also hope to pass bipartisan legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act marketplace, and lawmakers hope to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Also lingering are the expiring federal flood insurance program, and another round of disaster relief money for areas damaged by hurricanes.

Republicans had appeared to settle on a strategy to fund the government through Dec. 22, and released legislation over the weekend to do just that. But conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus balked, pushing instead for a CR lasting until Dec. 30. Their fear is that with Republicans likely to pass a final version of their tax overhaul just before Christmas, some Republicans could use their votes there as leverage for extraneous priorities in the spending bill.

“If they’re coming through at the same time, I think it just makes it that much more likely that people say, ‘In order to vote for the tax bill, I’m going to need X,’ whatever X happens to be,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, a top Freedom Caucus member.

Some defense hawks are also pushing to separate out defense spending and fund the military for a full year while doing just a short-term solution for domestic programs, an approach Democratic senators would likely reject. Any spending bill in the Senate would require 60 votes, meaning Democratic support is necessary.

Still, amid those many contentious issues, perhaps the most volatile is DACA -- President Obama’s executive order providing temporary status to children brought to this country illegally. President Trump earlier this year cancelled the program, effective March 2018. Republican leaders have shown little willingness to get jammed on a DACA solution in December with the deadline three months away, but many Democrats are hoping to use their leverage on spending to force the issue. There is pressure within the GOP as well; three dozen House Republicans sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan Tuesday demanding a solution on DACA this year.

The Washington Post reported last week that Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, was encouraging his colleagues to vote against any spending bill without a solution secured on DACA, and several prominent Democratic senators have taken that position publicly. Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, criticized the approach Tuesday.

“It simply does not advance the interests of these DACA recipients to try to force this into a shutdown narrative and to jeopardize our national security and other governmental functions just in order to help these young adults,” Cornyn said.

Durbin and Cornyn’s back-and-forth reflects the stalled nature of public negotiations over DACA. Cornyn and Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chairman, offered legislation pairing temporary relief for Dreamers with several border security and enforcement provisions that are GOP priorities. Durbin rejected that offer, however, because it was only a temporary DACA solution, and he is pushing for passage of the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship.

Democrats are not necessarily unified on the immigration strategy, and many are keeping their powder dry as negotiations among leaders continue. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he wanted a solution for DACA, and believes it is possible to reach one this year, but he did not advocate tying that to the spending fight.

“I’m just telling you I’m not going to shut the government down. I’m just not going to do it,” Tester said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill said her priorities for the spending bill included the Obamacare fix, a solution for Dreamers and funding for the children’s health program. But she declined to say whether her vote was dependent on any of those issues.

“I’m not going to draw a line in the sand until I see what it looks like,” she said.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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