Congress Returns for a Month of Pain

The difficult decisions from 2017 haven’t gone anywhere.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan
Have fun, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan!

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Yuri Gripas/Reuters and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

In recent years, our structurally broken federal government has had to leverage the holiday season in order to perform its basic duty of funding the government for an extended period of time.

When members are itching to get home for end-of-year festivities, leaders can stock an omnibus government spending bill with all of the junk they couldn’t pass the rest of the year, put it on the floor, and dare members not to vote for it. Some members might be upset by the contents of the bill, but then they go home and stop caring. The slate is clean when they return in January.

This year, congressional leaders were so consumed with jamming through their tax bill that they failed to reach an agreement on a bill to fund the government through September. Instead, they chose to punt the deadline a few weeks to Jan. 19. All of the difficult issues on which leaders sought a comprehensive deal—spending caps, immigration, children’s health care, disaster relief—now face a new arbitrary deadline, without any end-of-year leverage. Leaders can’t use the birth of Christ as a bargaining chip, meaning some members are going to have to eat it, in the bright light of the new year.

That does not bode well for a set of negotiations that perennially pits Republican leaders against members of their own party and now threatens to open a Democratic rift over the so-called Dreamers whom the party has pledged to protect.

Nothing else can be agreed to until a deal is reached on spending caps. Republicans in Congress and the White House want to increase defense spending by roughly infinity dollars. Democrats insist on parity between defense and domestic discretionary funding. But House conservatives, who see little need for much domestic discretionary funding at all and are closely monitoring Speaker Paul Ryan’s navigation of this thicket, strongly object to such a demand.

Those same House conservatives also object to the Alexander-Murray Obamacare stabilization bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to Maine Sen. Susan Collins, and to embedding a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program within the spending bill. It’s not entirely clear that Alexander-Murray is an item Democrats want anymore, since it wouldn’t make too much sense in the absence of the individual mandate, but they risk considerable consternation from activists if they fail to make a deal on DACA.

Democrats have punted on the issue three times in the past handful of months on short-term bills to keep the government open, with Republicans successfully picking off enough Democratic senators to ward off a filibuster.

Senate Democrats feel that their leverage on securing a DACA deal is tied up with negotiations over the long-term bill—but they’ve also shown their hand by refusing to risk a shutdown over the issue. They could stiffen their spines and change their minds this month. Or they could leave the issue, as Republicans have insisted, as an item to be considered in a stand-alone bill.

That would allow Republicans to link up a DACA fix, whether it’s the DREAM Act or anything else, with border security and interior enforcement measures—including “the Wall.” In other words, it will allow for a deal that would be far less favorable to immigration activists than one that could be forced through a spending deal that required Democratic votes.

What if, you may be asking, the appetite among all players to punt the difficult questions overrides everything else, and they just pass another short-term bill to buy more time? That sounds like an excellent possibility.

But there are reasons to doubt these stalling tactics can go on much longer. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants his grand new budget by yesterday. One plan House Republicans toyed with in December was linking the full-year defense appropriations bill with a stop-gap bill for everything else; they scrapped it once it became clear that such a plan would be dead on arrival in the Senate. Defense and nondefense spending will have to be linked, and decided on, soon. And for Republicans, the longer they delay the difficult decisions, the more closely the spending bill talks will align with the next debt ceiling hike—giving Democrats more leverage.

The four congressional leaders—McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Paul Ryan—met in Ryan’s office Wednesday afternoon with White House aides to resume discussions. The terse statement Democrats released afterward noted that the meeting had been “positive and productive,” which is Washingtonese for “pointless.” The statement from Republicans was similarly imprecise, though it did emphasize that it “remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy.”

This one’s going to be painful.