Congress Braces For A Brutal Spring

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The short-term budget Congress threw together to end the government shutdown in January will expire this week, and lawmakers have yet to solve any of the disagreements that brought them to the brink in the first place.

Negotiations over the fate of 700,000 young immigrants whose protections Trump revoked last year have stalled out—with moderates attempting to craft a narrower deal and the White House threatening to veto anything that doesn’t include provisions to slash legal immigration. And because Congress has yet to cut a deal to set new budget caps on military and domestic spending, lawmakers will have to pass yet another stop-gap continuing resolution by Feb. 8 to avoid another shutdown. Hanging over all of this is the debt ceiling, which Congress must raise earlier than expected because the GOP tax bill is already costing the government tens of billions in revenue.

With an eye on the midterm elections this fall, lawmakers are hesitant to stick their necks out for tough compromises, making agreement on all these issues an even heavier lift.

Welcome to the spring of Congress’ nightmares.

With less than a week left before their self-imposed deadline to strike a bipartisan deal on immigration, Congress has made almost no progress. High-level meetings between House and Senate leaders in both parties are going nowhere, with each side accusing the other of intransigence, and more collegial bipartisan meetings between rank-and-file senators are still in the brainstorming phase, far from drafting an actual bill.

With deep divisions within the GOP and Democrats staunchly opposed to the Trump immigration framework, many in the House and Senate are advocating for a more bare-bones package that protects DACA recipients, and leaves out the controversial cuts to family-based visas the White House has demanded.

“1.8 million getting a path to citizenship in exchange for border security is a pretty good deal,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told TPM after the State of the Union. “But once you bring up diversity lottery and chain migration, then you’ve broadened the discussion considerably. That’s my concern.”

But even if the House and Senate managed to pass such a slimmed-down bill—something that is far from certain—Trump has threatened to veto it. 

“We’ll either have something that’s fair and equitable and good and secure, or we’re going to have nothing at all,” he warned on Thursday, addressing Republican lawmakers’ annual retreat, where there were no sessions scheduled to discuss immigration.   

With time running out for DACA recipients, who are set to lose their protection from deportation on March 5 if Congress does not act, some lawmakers have advocated for a process known as “Queen of the Hill,” where many different bills would be put on the floor and whichever got the most votes would emerge victorious. But others worry that no one bill would win enough votes in the House and Senate, leaving DACA recipients at risk of deportation.

Meanwhile, with no agreement yet on raising the budget caps on military and domestic spending, Congress will have to pass yet another short-term continuing resolution by Feb. 8 to keep the government running. Leaders are currently exploring a three-week bill, which would blow past DACA’s March 5 deadline and drive the country right up to the limit of the debt ceiling.

The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced that the country will hit the debt ceiling a full month earlier than previously expected due to the massive tax cuts passed by Congress in December. Beginning in February, the IRS has said, the government will see $10 billion to $15 billion less tax revenue each month.

Though raising the debt ceiling is a do-or-die item for Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle may try to use the threat of default to extract concessions. The hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus has suggested they will demand yet-to-be-specified “spending reforms” in exchange for voting to raise the ceiling, though GOP leaders have warned that doing so could imperil passage in the Senate, where Democratic votes are needed. Democrats, in the minority in both the House and Senate, may also see the upcoming cliffs as one of few opportunities for them to have leverage, setting up a possible Catch 22 scenario. Some Democratic lawmakers have vowed to vote against the next short-term budget if there is no agreement to protect DACA recipients, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he will only bring an immigration bill to the floor if the government remains open.

As they did in January to pressure Democrats to vote for a budget that left DACA recipients behind, Republicans may once again make use of an impending health care crisis. The last short-term budget reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, rescuing the program that 9 million low-income families depend on. This time, the sweetener may be a few years of funding for community health centers, which provide care for more than 25 million low-income Americans, and many of which are on the brink of running out of money.

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