WASHINGTON — Still reeling from a bruising loss on health care, Republicans return to work after a two-week recess Monday with just five days to whip their fractious caucus into line and avoid a government shutdown.
Funding for the federal government runs out on Friday, which coincidentally marks President Trump’s 100th day in office. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House, likely need at least a few Democratic votes in the House to pass the spending bill, and will definitely need some Democrats in the Senate to back their plan.
GOP leaders are working on a compromise bill that avoids sparking a Democratic rebellion but also doesn’t alienate Trump, who’s asked for big hikes in defense spending as well as $3 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and other immigration enforcement. Politico recently reported that the White House is doubling down on its border wall request, despite Democrats calling it a “poison pill” they won’t swallow.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters this week that Trump’s immigration enforcement demands should be debated in the full 2018 budget rather than the planned spending bill, which will likely only fund the government for five months.
“We think that the immigration issue should be discussed in the 2018 budget where there’s votes and discussions — that nothing should shut down people’s votes,” Schumer said. “That would apply to the main immigration issues that are before us, not just the wall.”
In press conferences, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has suggested she would be open to spending on border “technology” and personnel. But she dismissed the wall itself as impractical.
“If they want to invest in more personnel or more technology or something like that, that might make some sense,” she said in February. “But a wall?”
“If the wall money is included you cannot expect any Democratic support,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Republican leaders appeared to be backing away from the wall last month. In March, Sen. Roy Blunt told reporters the president’s funding requests would likely be passed later as a separate bill. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also said he plans to pass a “clean” funding bill, suggesting he doesn’t want to add on too many extras that could complicate its passage.
But if Trump continues to demand wall funding, it could change that calculus — setting up next week to be a bitter showdown between the parties as the clock ticks before the shutdown.
In a press conference Thursday, the president did not appear to be spoiling for a fight. “As far as keeping the government open, I want to keep the government open, don’t you agree?” he asked.
But Trump also told reporters Thursday that he wanted the lawmakers to deliver both a spending deal and a new vote on the Obamacare repeal and replace deal next week or the following week, potentially setting up another clash between Congress and the White House. “We have a good chance of getting it soon, I’d like to say next week,” Trump said of a new vote on healthcare. With the budget deadline looming, Republican lawmakers do not appear to be in the same hurry.
It’s possible Congress will pass a one-week or 10-day extension of government funding while they continue to hash out the various issues that plague them.
Conservatives in Washington are anxiously waiting to see what happens next week. Many of them hope Republicans are able to quickly pass a funding bill without devolving into infighting along moderate-conservative lines, like last month when the health care bill abruptly fell apart. It’s unclear if conservative House Freedom Caucus members will decide to put up a fight over the budget measure if it doesn’t contain sufficient spending cuts. And if the GOP leadership decides to avoid the wall fight, border hawks like Rep. Steve King could also decide to kick up a fuss.
“No one wants this fight,” said one leader of a conservative advocacy group who did not wish to be named. “If they can’t handle this, we need to break the glass and pull the handle.”
Republican Rep. Mike Kelly told Yahoo News that the GOP is aware that it will “rise or fall” based upon its ability to govern. “I think we’ll be able to reach an agreement, I really do,” Kelly said of the spending bill.
Liz Mair, a political consultant in Washington, said the “hardcore libertarian” in her wishes conservatives would put up a fight over government spending, but she doubts it will happen.
“The wall is probably the closest thing to an actual sticking point, but I’m not even convinced that will be a big deal when push comes to shove,” Mair wrote in an email. “I’d love to be proved wrong and see conservatives press for real spending restraint (now and in future), but I don’t think members of Congress agree with me on that one.”
The wall isn’t the only potential stumbling block to negotiations. The White House is also reportedly pushing to attach a rider that would block federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities that do not help enforce federal immigration law to the bill. Another potential catch: Wary of potential White House efforts to undermine Obamacare, Democrats want the funding bill to include at least some of the billions of dollars the government owes to health insurance companies. House Republicans have sued over these payments, saying they are illegal. Democrats have also said any defunding of Planned Parenthood, long a conservative priority, would be a “poison pill” leading them to reject the measure.
Kelly said he believes Democrats will be blamed for a shutdown if any of these issues becomes fatal and they don’t reach a compromise. “I think the American people are becoming more savvy as to how the government works, and where the logjams are,” he said.
But Neal, the Congressman from Massachusetts, disagreed. “If there’s a Republican shutdown they own it,” he said.