All Eyes on Nancy

Will House Democrats accept a budget deal without a DACA fix?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

President Trump on Tuesday called for a government shutdown if he doesn’t get his way on immigration. To the horror of his communications office, the president actually said, “I’d love to see a shutdown,” following an unrelated meeting at the White House.

The expression of “love” for a government shutdown isn’t noteworthy just for its unorthodox political sentiment. It’s also detached from the spending debate currently underway on Capitol Hill. There will be no immigration deal reached before the shutdown deadline, Thursday at midnight. Senate Democrats had already backed off their demand that the spending talks be linked to the status of nearly 2 million Dreamers.

But immigration is related to the spending talks in a different way. Because Senate Democrats divorced the two issues, negotiators are suddenly on the cusp of reaching the long-term budget deal that’s eluded Congress since last fall. That presents a big question to House Democrats: Should they supply the necessary votes for this budget deal without a path forward on Dreamers?

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, met Tuesday morning, they each said that a budget agreement is in sight, and that they hoped to wrap it up imminently. When I asked Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a leading appropriator, if there were still difficult decisions to be made, or if it was just a matter of finishing touches, he said the two sides are “that close,” separating his thumb and index finger by about a centimeter.

“Sometimes you get that close, and things happen,” he said. “Good and bad.”

By late Tuesday afternoon, everyone on Capitol Hill was treating the budget deal as a sure thing.

It turns out the key to reaching a bipartisan budget deal is just to, well, throw a lot of money around. The two-year deal is expected to increase spending by about $300 billion over that period, much more than the previous spending deals reached in 2013 and 2015. It would vastly increase the defense budget and substantially boost domestic spending, if not precisely to the level of “parity” that Democrats have been demanding.

House Republicans are expected to pass their own funding bill on Tuesday night. If the Senate can reach its big deal before the Thursday deadline, then the expectation is that they’ll strip the House bill and tack the budget deal onto the shell that remains. That process would give appropriators until late March to write a final package that funds the government through September.

But the deal would also scramble the vote count as the clock ticks toward another shutdown.

A caps deal that vastly expands domestic spending would lose conservative votes in both chambers. These conservatives, who are not the most compromise-minded individuals, want military spending sent through the roof and domestic spending cut to the bone. They believe they can heckle enough Senate Democrats into agreeing to that.

“The thinking seems to be that in order to get much-needed military spending, we’re gonna have to waste more taxpayer dollars on domestic spending,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy told reporters Tuesday. It gives him a “stomachache,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure how he would vote on such a bill.

In the Senate, leaders could lose conservatives like Kennedy, as well as the dozen or so Democratic senators who are running for president in 2020 and refuse to vote for spending bills that don’t offer a resolution for Dreamers. But the Senate is an institution that thrives on sticking it to party bases. This shouldn’t be too hard of a lift.

The House is a more interesting question.

Since December, Speaker Paul Ryan has relied exclusively on Republican votes to pass stop-gap bills. If the Senate’s spending caps deal raises domestic spending by a 12-digit number, it would lead to serious bleeding from the right flank of the party—and even among the rank-and-file. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters Tuesday that he believed such a deal could lose about 90 Republican votes. (He added that the number would increase if the Senate also attaches a debt ceiling increase to the bill, something that’s still being debated.) This would require Ryan to turn to Democrats to supply a substantial number missing votes.

Many House Democrats are furious at their colleagues in the Senate for selling them out on Dreamers. Though the Senate will have an open debate and amendment next week on an immigration bill, House Democrats have been promised no such thing in their own chamber, which is why they’ve wanted it tacked on to a piece of must-pass legislation. The stakes were raised on Tuesday when Ryan made his presumed position official: He would not bring immigration legislation to the floor without Trump’s support.

If negotiators can finalize a caps deal and attach it to the Senate’s funding bill, watch House Democrats. How much would they ask for? And what would they be willing to settle for?