Political News

Democrats Outline Demands as Threat of Shutdown Looms

Posted January 2, 2018 9:25 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Senate returns Wednesday with its Republican majority down to one seat and buoyed Democrats issuing a full list of demands — such as funding children’s health care and protecting young unauthorized immigrants — just weeks before another possible government shutdown.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate will meet Wednesday with White House officials to try to come to terms on a deal to raise strict limits on military and domestic spending before Jan. 19, when the current stopgap spending bill expires.

If negotiations break down, the government could run out of money — just as President Donald Trump marks his first year in office.

Democratic demands are ambitious, topped by a legislative shield for the young unauthorized immigrants whose Obama-era protection from deportation was ended by Trump. They are also pushing for broader intervention in the opioid epidemic, a boost for veterans’ care, disaster relief to hurricane-stricken areas, and financing for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said in an interview Tuesday.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, cast protection for unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children as a “moral issue,” saying that resolving the fate of the Dreamers was a prerequisite for enacting any long-term spending plan.

But Democrats face their own challenges. Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states won by Trump are likely not eager for a government shutdown, worried that they could be blamed, just as Republicans were in 2013 when the government shut down for 16 days during their battle with President Barack Obama over his health care bill.

And Trump is looking for a fight. On Tuesday he goaded Democrats on the immigration issue.

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA — just interested in politics,” the president wrote, using the acronym for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative he rescinded. “DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, will start ‘falling in love’ with Republicans and their President! We are about RESULTS.”

Democrats are under intense pressure from immigration rights activists to pass long-standing legislation, called the DREAM Act, which would shield young unauthorized immigrants from deportation, offer them work permits and create for them a path to citizenship.

Last month, thousands of people showed up for a pro-immigration rally on Capitol Hill, and nearly 200 of them — including two members of Congress — were arrested on the Capitol steps while demanding that Democrats insist on the passage of the DREAM Act, even at the risk of shutting down the government.

More than 14,000 young immigrants have lost their protection under the DACA program since Trump ended it in September, according to Cristina Jiménez, the executive director of United We Dream, an advocacy group. At the time, Trump said he was giving Congress six months to draft legislation codifying the program, setting a March deadline. Republicans say there is no urgency.

But immigrants’ rights activists say they cannot wait.

Immigrants who have lost their protection “can be caught when they are going to school, walking around their neighborhood, going to work,” Jiménez said. “People are living in daily fear that they could be detained and arrested.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, has promised a vote if a bipartisan group of senators can reach agreement on a measure that would extend protection from deportation while also beefing up border security, a key demand of Republicans.

But Democrats fear that a stand-alone immigration measure could die in the House or be vetoed by the president. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Democrats had more leverage if protections were included in a spending package.

“It doesn’t help us to pass the DREAM Act and have it be a separate bill that never makes it to the president’s desk or gets vetoed on the president’s desk,” he said.

The arrival on Wednesday of Doug Jones, the newly elected Democrat of Alabama, leaves Republicans with an exceedingly narrow Senate majority, 51-49. The Senate’s major legislative accomplishment of last year, a far-reaching overhaul of the tax code, was muscled through using procedural maneuvers that allowed for a simple majority, party-line victory.

But Republicans cannot use such maneuvers on a spending bill, which will require 60 votes for passage. That gives Democrats an advantage, said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader.

“Republicans know that a government shutdown falls on their back, because they’re in charge of House, Senate and the president, and for the first time they need Democrats to accomplish their goals,” Schumer said.

Wednesday’s meeting is supposed to focus on spending levels, which were fixed in the 2011 legislation that ended another fiscal showdown. It will include Pelosi and Schumer, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, and his liaison to Congress, Marc Short.

Both Schumer and Pelosi said Democrats would use the session to insist on “parity,” meaning that military and domestic spending must be increased by the same amount. Republicans are far more focused on building up the military.

“This idea that we’ve got to increase domestic spending dollar for dollar, it has no basis in reality,'’ said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “It’s simply a way to try to use the military to blackmail the government to spend more money domestically.”

But Democrats say they are optimistic. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has warned repeatedly that his department cannot continue to function under short-term stopgap spending measures if it is to streamline and modernize its capabilities — and has met regularly with Democratic leaders to tell them so.

“If they have the votes within their caucus, they can do whatever they want,” Pelosi said, referring to Republicans. “They have the ability to keep the government open, to put forth their valueless priorities. And so why are they accusing us of holding the Defense Department hostage?”

The 2018 fiscal year began in October, but lawmakers have struggled to inch toward a long-term deal to fund the government. The lack of an agreement on raising the spending limits has essentially stalled the process, and a deal to raise those caps has so far proved elusive for Trump and congressional leaders. In one case last year, a planned White House meeting fell apart after Trump took to Twitter to attack Schumer and Pelosi, who promptly pulled out of the planned gathering.

And in recent weeks, as Republicans raced to pass their sweeping tax overhaul, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was hardly conducive for a bipartisan deal.

Shortly before Christmas, the House and Senate agreed on the stopgap spending bill that is keeping the government open through Jan. 19, punting other fights into the new year.

“It never seems to get any easier, right?” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said at the time. “January’s going to be a bear.”