Another shutdown showdown looms this month and Congress isn’t even back yet. Happy New Year, Washington.
Congressional leaders from both parties will sit down with top White House officials on Wednesday to haggle over the basics of a budget deal they were supposed to settle last spring. And while aides say the talks will stick to spending, a fight over immigration looms along with a host of other thorny policy disputes that will shape the 2018 legislative agenda.
Ahead of the meeting, there was little sign of conciliation on either side.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to her Democratic colleagues on Tuesday insisting that Democrats would demand higher domestic spending. President Donald Trump tweeted a broadside at Democrats, saying the party is “doing nothing for DACA – just interested in politics.” That missive came days after Trump egged on Democrats over his plan to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, tweeting that “there can be no DACA deal” without a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — which Democrats have ruled out.
Whether the parties can reach a deal on immigration is still unclear, but one certainty is that they need to come together by Jan. 19 to avoid a shutdown.
The key players meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol are Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, White House legislative director Marc Short and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney.
Republicans are eager to separate a debate on Dreamers from the latest budget fight, with White House officials saying Tuesday that the meeting’s focus will be on raising stiff budget caps for defense and domestic programs over the next two years — not on immigration.
“The president wants a two-year budget deal that provides realistic budget caps, and provides certainty for our national security,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday. “That’ll be the focus, front and center, for the conversations that are taking place this week.”
A senior congressional aide also said the meeting was called by the speaker’s office, with the topic specifically focused on trying to reach a budget caps deal.
But Democratic votes will be needed for any spending measure, giving them leverage to force the issue.
Wednesday’s meeting is the first of several key strategy sessions taking place in the coming days. Trump is meeting with Ryan and McConnell at Camp David this weekend to map out the GOP agenda, including whether and how to tackle welfare programs, health care and infrastructure. House and Senate Republicans will hold their annual joint retreat at month’s end.
However, even if a budget deal can be clinched soon, aides and lawmakers say Congress still will likely need to pass another short-term funding bill to avoid a shutdown later this month. That would mark the fourth patch in as many months.
“Until we have an agreement, I don’t think you have a choice but to think about another CR,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a long-time spending leader, told POLITICO on Tuesday. He said he expects another continuing resolution to last possibly through President’s Day.
“We’ve been waiting 110 days for five people to come to a deal and they’re holding up the entire funding of the government of the United States because they can’t sit down a find a common number,” Cole said, though rank-and-file Republicans also acknowledged they previously slow-walked spending negotiations to avoid derailing their tax push.
Democratic leaders say they’d be willing to back another stopgap bill as long as both parties have agreed to an overall budget deal.
“If you have a situation where everything is done and this is just about inking the deal, then it’s not going to be controversial to do a short-term CR,” a Democratic House aide said.
Along with immigration, the parties are split over federal spending levels.
Democratic leaders have demanded a spending deal that matches every additional dollar spent at the Pentagon with a dollar for domestic programs.
Republicans have blasted the idea, accusing Democrats of holding the Pentagon hostage to their domestic priorities. Some conservatives say they’d prefer Trump to attend the meeting personally. But with two of the administration’s most fiscally conservative officials at the other end of the negotiating table, Democrats may be hard pressed to secure their demands.
In her letter to Democrats Tuesday, Pelosi said she and Schumer will “continue to insist on parity” in the defense and non-defense budget caps during the Wednesday meeting. She also said they will be fighting for additional spending on veterans programs, disaster relief, the National Institutes of Health, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, community health centers, combating the opioid epidemic and propping up faltering pension plans.
Other key deadlines Congress must address by Jan. 19 include extending federal spying powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program.
Lawmakers are also under pressure to quickly approve a massive disaster relief package to help communities rebuild from deadly hurricanes and wildfires this year and to raise the debt ceiling before the nation reaches its borrowing limit in the next few months.
All of those issues were punted at the end of last year.
While Pelosi also wrote in her letter that they are “firmly committed to swiftly passing the DREAM Act,” Democratic leaders are not laying down an ultimatum demanding a DACA fix in return for their support of a spending agreement.
Instead, congressional leaders have chosen to let a group of negotiators in the Senate try to strike a deal that would offer permanent protection for Dreamers — immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors — while including border security and other restrictive immigration provisions.
The informal group of seven senators, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), have been quietly working with White House officials on the issue.
Late last month, White House chief of staff John Kelly pledged to send senators a list of immigration provisions that the Trump administration wants to see attached to any agreement for Dreamers. But the White House has yet to send over such a list, three congressional aides said Tuesday.
Senators have been open to modest boosts in border security and have discussed somewhat restricting the ability of Dreamers to sponsor relatives for permanent residency. McConnell has said he would bring an immigration bill to the Senate floor by the end of January if lawmakers and the White House can reach a compromise.
Heather Caygle and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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