- Congress has until Friday to pass a funding bill and avoid a government shutdown.
- The negotiations to avoid a shutdown are focusing on two issues: spending caps and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
- President Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comments and Twitter attacks are complicating factors.
- While the risk of a shutdown is elevated, Congress may simply pass a short-term funding bill to extend the deadline to work out these issues.
Congressional leaders are running out of time to get a deal to avoid a government shutdown, and President Donald Trump isn’t simplifying things.
At the stroke of midnight on Friday, the federal government will enter a partial shutdown if Congress does not pass a bill to fund operations.
With little more than three days to go, Republicans and Democrats remain divided on several issues, including spending caps and immigration. Not helping matters is a fight over Trump’s reported inflammatory comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations that many have called racist.
There is still a chance of another kick-the-can-down-the-road extension of federal funding, similar to delays in September and December, but a government shutdown is becoming likelier, according to policy analysts.
“This current round of negotiations is the closest we will come to a government shutdown in the Trump presidency,” Ed Mills, a public policy analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a note to clients on Tuesday.
The first of two major sticking points in negotiations about a shutdown is directly related to the funding of the government: spending caps.
Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, increases in defence and non-defence spending are set in advance, and congressional action is required to raise those caps.
Both Republicans and Democrats want to increase funding for the two sides to levels higher than the caps, but they disagree over just how high. Republicans want to bump defence spending to a level much higher than non-defence spending, while Democrats want to match the spending increase for defence with an equal increase for non-defence.
Once these caps are agreed to, congressional appropriators – staffers who focus on budgeting – can get to work on divvying up the money to individual programs.
The second, thornier issue is over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative to temporarily protect from deportation immigrants who came to the US as minors and are living in the country illegally.
The Trump administration in September announced it would end the program, requiring Congress to codify it by March or put the over 700,000 immigrants it protects, known as Dreamers, at risk of deportation.
Republicans are angling to include a slew of other conservative immigration priorities with any deal on DACA and want the issue addressed outside of the funding bill.
Democrats, on the other hand, want a more straightforward solution to DACA attached to the spending bill to give it a higher probability of passing, since GOP holdouts would be less inclined to vote it down if it meant shutting down the government.
Reports say the two sides are still far away on these core issues – leaving the door open for a shutdown.
Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at the research firm Compass Point, wrote in a note to clients Tuesday that, given the short amount of time to settle these issues and a lack of agreement, the DACA issue is unlikely to be solved this week, increasing the chance of a shutdown.
“At this point, lawmakers are unable to solve key policy conundrums – including spending caps, DACA, health care, and disaster assistance – prior to Friday’s deadline,” Boltansky wrote. “Therefore, the only hope of avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the week is yet another short-term punt.”
The Trump factor
Throwing a wrench into the negotiations is the president, who has recently inflamed tensions and distracted from the talks.
In the past week, Trump has used what many Democrats are calling racist language, suggested Democrats are negotiating in bad faith, and criticised a senior member of the Democratic conference – all of which do not sow the seeds of bipartisan cooperation.
On Thursday, reports surfaced that Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole countries” (or “shithouse countries”) during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration, igniting tensions with Democrats and making the road to agreement harder.
The delay scenario
The easiest thing for Republicans to do to avoid a politically damaging shutdown would be to kick the can down the road and buy more time to negotiate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has already told reporters that a short-term bill with new spending-cap levels is likely to be necessary to give appropriators time to divvy up the funding for numerous programs.
That could push the next deadline for a shutdown into February, giving congressional leaders more time to work out the differences on DACA.
“While the precise path to passage remains uncertain and serious hurdles lie ahead, there is still a general belief that lawmakers will reach an 11th hour deal punting the funding deadline into February,” Boltansky said.
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