Congress sinks into partisan morass as shutdown threat looms

The halls of Congress are quiet for the next two weeks, but big challenges await lawmakers when they return.


By BILLY HOUSE | Bloomberg News | Published: April 10, 2017

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Members of Congress are back home for a two-week recess after one of the most bitterly divided and least productive starts in recent history. A new, urgent challenge is waiting for them when they return: finding a way to set aside their anger and mistrust long enough to keep the federal government open.

Government funding expires on April 28, which will give Congress five days to unveil, debate and pass an enormous spending bill, or trigger a government shutdown.

“What a mess,” said Paul Brace, a congressional expert at Rice University in Houston, offering his own pessimistic view of the unified Republican control of the House and Senate so far under President Donald Trump. “It was so much easier when all you had to do was oppose Obama.”

Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House, yet their sole legislative accomplishments are a few measures reversing obscure regulations implemented in the closing months of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The health-care debate has been particularly painful and embarrassing for Republicans. After passing dozens of repeal bills that were never going to be enacted under Obama, they couldn’t quite unify on a plan that could actually become law under Trump.

House Republicans “have differences of opinion. And they aren’t just political differences, they are policy differences,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. “They’re going to have a tough time coming together without some Democratic votes, and I think that’s the acknowledgment.”

Republicans and Trump have yet to try to engage Democrats on health care, or other significant legislative priorities. Confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee came only after Republicans changed Senate rules to overcome Democratic opposition.

The only exception has been that through all the partisan rancor, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been quietly negotiating an omnibus spending bill that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Nobody has seen the result yet, which leaves conservatives deeply suspicious about why their party’s leaders are waiting so long to unveil the legislation.

“It’s like a florist being surprised by Valentine’s Day,” said Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I don’t get it.”

Democrats involved in the talks say the process has been fair and productive, and Republican leaders are praising the chances for bipartisanship.

“These kinds of bills can’t pass without a reasonable number of the party of the minority in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Friday. “And we are optimistic we’ll be able to work all that out and meet the deadline at the end of the month.” Any spending measure needs at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to be enacted.

But there are several wild cards that could derail things, the biggest one being Trump. The president wants Congress to begin spending money on a border wall — his signature campaign promise — even though Democrats are mostly opposed and Republican leaders are in no hurry.

The White House won’t say whether Trump will threaten to veto the spending bill if the border money isn’t included. Trump has asked Congress for $33 billion in extra defense and border wall funding, paired with $18 billion in cuts to domestic programs.

Republicans have rejected the domestic cuts, but it’s unclear how the wall funding will be handled.

“The only thing that could derail that progress is the White House insisting on their extraneous demands, which would meet bipartisan opposition,” said Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned Thursday that including funding for the border wall will almost certainly cause a loss of Democratic support. “I would hope that they wouldn’t try that,” she said, adding: “The American people don’t even support it.”

Conservatives, however, are expecting to see some of Trump’s priorities reflected in the measure, something that Democrats are unlikely to go along with.

“I think that what you will see, you’ll see funding in there for the wall, I think you will see funding in there for better enforcement of sanctuary cities, and I think you will see a plus-up on military,” Meadows predicted. “I think that most people will vote for that, it will go to the Senate, it will get stripped out and then we will have a hard decision to be made in four days.”

Other Republicans say it’s time for the GOP to show it can govern.

“We’re going to do what it takes to get the comity back to the Senate,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

In the House, passing a spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2017 was always going to be a challenge. Fiscal conservatives regularly bolt on any spending omnibus, and House Republicans have had to rely on some Democratic votes consistently since taking over the majority in 2011.

In some ways, this crisis too was self-inflicted. The fight could have been avoided in December had the incoming administration not instructed Congress to hold off on passing a bipartisan spending measure in order to give it a chance to weigh in.

Now lawmakers are waiting to see how hard, if at all, the administration will fight for its priorities.

“I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that these failures don’t stem from bad motives or incompetence by Congress members,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University Bloomington. “They stem from genuine division in the country. It may be intensified in Congress because the loudest voices in their constituencies are usually the most highly partisan and the most extreme.”

Beyond keeping government funded and running later this month, Republicans and Trump are eyeing other ambitious legislative goals — including a tax overhaul, infrastructure spending, and legislation to raise the nation’s debt limit.

McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan also have to decide whether to adopt a new fiscal 2018 budget resolution, which could be a difficult feat given conservatives’ demands that the budget needs to be balanced within 10 years.

The darkest cloud over bipartisanship may be the detonation Thursday by Senate Republicans of the “nuclear option,” which enabled them to get around Democratic efforts to block Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The consequences of that decision, allowing Gorsuch to be confirmed Friday, will likely impact the Senate for years.

“I think they’re throwing a monkey wrench in the gears of bipartisanship and it’s going to make a tough situation even worse in the United States Senate,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said. “When they’re blowing up rules, we’ve got to figure out how we best use the rules that remain.”

With assistance from Erik Wasson, Laura Litvan, Steven T. Dennis, Anna Edgerton and Arit John.

©2017 Bloomberg News
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