The GOP's Hidden Win in the Budget Deal
I suggested last week, with rare optimism and hopefulness for the state of American politics, that Congress was on the verge of a truly bipartisan, two-year budget deal with the potential to break the stranglehold of partisanship that has gripped Washington for the last many years. That legislation, which set overall funding levels for both the current and next fiscal year, lifted the debt ceiling until March 2019, kept the government funded for six weeks, and provided much-needed disaster aid to areas of the country ravaged by storm and fire, did eventually pass the House and Senate and receive President Trump’s signature. But, in typical Washington fashion, the bill’s fate looked dicey at times, and a filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) delayed its consideration by the Senate long enough to force another government shutdown – the twentieth in our nation’s history – albeit only for a few hours in the middle of the night. For sanity, let us consider only the deliciousness of the sausage and not the process by which it was made.
With the two-year budget, the debt ceiling and disaster funding now dispensed with, policymakers in Washington surmounted a key hurdle and have surprisingly few must-pass pieces of legislation left to consider for the remainder of the year. To be sure: those that remain are incredibly important, with significant implications for the country and many of its citizens. Quantitatively, though, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have effectively cleared the decks to allow their members to spend more time back in their home states and districts campaigning this year ahead of the midterm elections.
In the Senate, the first order of business following the passage of the budget package was to turn to immigration policy. In exchange for their votes to end the government shutdown several weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised Democrats an open debate on the Senate floor to consider legislation to address the status of Dreamers, whose legal protection under an Obama-era program President Trump has announced he will end on March 5. Leader McConnell has made good on his commitment, and the Senate this week proceeded to an extraordinary process, at least in modern history: open debate on a critical policy issue for which leadership of the chamber has no idea what the outcome will be. McConnell has pledged that the Senate will spend this entire week seeking to develop an immigration bill that can attract the support of at least 60 senators. As of this writing, such legislation has been elusive. The White House – and Republican senators, by extension – are insisting that border security and comprehensive immigration reform be attached to any legislation that addresses Dreamers. For many Democrats, these demands are a nonstarter. Though as of this writing negotiators on both sides of the aisle have failed to find a path forward, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) got it right when he reminded CNN yesterday that “it’s amazing how magically, suddenly things appear” at the very last minute.
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has insisted that he is open to his chamber’s consideration of an immigration bill this year, but has stopped short of making any hard commitments on either timing or substance. While the Senate considers immigration policy, House appropriators, who finally, five months into the fiscal year, have top-line budget targets against which to appropriate, are hard at work crafting a so-called omnibus appropriations package. Speaker Ryan intends to have this package – a massive bill comprised of all of the various long-term appropriations bills Congress typically passes individually before the fiscal year ends – enacted into law. As is typically the case in Washington, the process is rife with potential complications. Though the budget set top-line targets, the omnibus bill will decide how much funding every area of the federal government receives, and for what express purposes. Republican Congressional leaders may decide to try to “load up” the omnibus bill with policy riders – provisions wholly unrelated to government spending that may not have had sufficient support to become enacted on their own, but attached to a must-pass bill, find enough support from members holding their nose and voting “aye” to become law. With conservative Republicans likely to oppose an omnibus bill as a result of their concerns regarding spending levels, the Speaker is likely to need at least some Democratic votes. He will therefore need to tread carefully on adding riders to the package.
The same calculus applies in the Senate, but more acutely. With the slimmest of majorities, Leader McConnell will need to find at least nine Democrats willing to support the omnibus bill to reach the 60 votes needed to proceed to its consideration on the Senate floor. The likelihood of any particularly impactful policy rider being included in the package is therefore very slim if it is going to pass and another shutdown is to be averted.
There are, of course, other issues, both planned and some unforeseen, that Congress will have to turn its attention to between now and November. But if Congress can clear an immigration bill and an omnibus appropriations package over the next several weeks, Congressional GOP leaders will have the much-needed ability to provide their members with much more time to spend at home with their constituents over the next several months. And the data clearly shows that this should be a priority. Democrats lead Republicans on a generic Congressional ballot by almost seven points nationwide. More than 40 incumbent House Republicans running for reelection were outraised in the final quarter of 2017 by at least one of their Democratic opponents. Some were outraised by several. Though much of the coverage regarding the budget bill last week has focused on the substance of the package, by essentially clearing the decks last week, Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan gave their party an even more valuable political win: significantly more time for their members to campaign in advance of November.