Congress is on track for a major government shutdown showdown

Don’t look now, but it’s becoming a real possibility that the government will shut down in December. Congress has until midnight on December 15 to pass a spending bill or the federal government will run out of money.

The tricky thing is that Republicans need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to pass a bill, which means they will need to make some serious compromises to get a spending bill through.

The shutdown dance is a familiar one — it looked possible as recently as this past April — and it’s still too early to evaluate the state of negotiations (Congress has a habit of waiting until the last minute on spending bills). But this year, President Donald Trump has really complicated Congress’s job.

Once Obamacare repeal failed, the only major item on Republicans’ agenda for the rest of the year was supposed to be tax reform. But then Trump announced his administration planned to sunset the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, putting upward of 600,000 unauthorized immigrants in limbo; and that it would end the Affordable Care Act’s subsidy payments, a move that will increase premiums for Americans and dig a deeper hole in the national deficit. Trump is forcing Congress’s hand to act, but he hasn’t given a clear or realistic policy directive on immigration or health care.

Congress also keeps putting off negotiations on key policies, like the now-expired federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

“These are all crises being created by congressional Republicans or the president,” one senior Democratic leadership aide said.

None of these policy areas are easy bipartisan negotiations, and Democrats have identified all of them as priorities. If they remain unresolved by December, we can expect Democrats to tie them to the must-pass government spending bill — and use the threat of a government shutdown to try to get their way.

As with all spending negotiations, this will be a game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. If Democrats can hold together in withholding votes, Republicans will be forced to cave — or risk presiding over a government shutdown.

Democrats have leverage — and their list of priorities keeps getting longer

Democrats have already secured some wins through the budget process. Earlier this year, top Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on a spending bill for 2017 that nearly half the GOP conference hated; it didn’t fund Trump’s border wall, and it kept out provisions that would defund Planned Parenthood, in exchange for an increase to defense funding and some border security money.

This time, however, Democrats are racking up an even longer list of priorities:

1) Democrats want the DREAM Act — or some permanent extension of DACA

Democrats say that first and foremost, they want “clean” passage of the DREAM Act. Short of that, they say they would agree to some additional border security enforcement — but nothing close to what Trump’s White House has proposed.

“There’s a lot of must-pass pieces of legislation that require Democratic support to get them over the finish line, and Democrats have made it clear that if the DREAM Act is not addressed … they’re not going to have any Democrats to get them over the finish line,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters.

As Dara Lind explained for Vox, Democrats take the demands of their immigrant base very seriously these days, which means the amount of wiggle room they have is small. Already there are conservative alternatives to the DREAM Act that Democrats could theoretically compromise on.

2) Trump said he would stop paying Obamacare subsidies — which will make premiums go up for middle- and higher-income people

Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced a bipartisan health care deal last week in an effort to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges by funding key insurance subsidies, while giving states more flexibility on Obamacare’s regulations.

The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support, but House Speaker Paul Ryan has already poured cold water on the whole exercise, making it unlikely that the proposal will even be brought up for a vote in the Senate.

It’s highly possible Democrats will use the spending deadline as an opportunity to force Republicans to vote on the bill — and keep Obamacare working as intended.

3) CHIP still hasn’t been renewed — and Democrats may want to use this deadline to renew that program too

Congress has already let the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million kids, expire without a deal to extend the program.

This program has widespread bipartisan support, and the Senate is considering a bipartisan deal to extend the program for five years. But the effort is currently being stalled in the House, where Republicans put forward a proposal that attempts to offset CHIP’s cost by taking money from Medicare and the Affordable Care Act to pay for it.

CHIP is typically an easy lift, but Republicans keep pushing back negotiations, so this program, too, could land on the long list of Democratic demands come December.

4) Relief funding, the border wall, Planned Parenthood and everything else

On top of DACA, CHIP, and Obamacare funding, Democrats will still have to put up a fight against a whole host of other “nonstarters” that Republicans have been known to propose. For example, Democrats have made it clear that they will not allow funding for the southern border wall that Trump has insisted on since taking office. Every effort to defund Planned Parenthood has also been met with organized Democratic opposition.

And with the recent natural disasters in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and California, there is already talk of increased relief funding, which fiscally conservative Republicans have grown increasingly reluctant to sign on to.

Any one of these issues would be a major agenda item in any congressional term — and leaving them all to the end of the year only raises the stakes for the spending fight.

“We did this in April, and started out with 160 poison pills, the wall, and we sat down and got rid of all the poison pills and [the] wall,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said. “We did it before, and we’ll do it again.”

Trump has made spending negotiations way more complicated

Trump and congressional Republicans have yet to deliver a single major legislative victory. With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, it certainly won’t be a good look for them if they are also unable to keep the government open.

But as with all bills, the final say on the budget is Trump’s. He has to decide whether he will sign anything short of his campaign demands. And it seems he has been less concerned with the prospect of a government shutdown than Republicans leaders are.

Rather, he has raised the stakes of shutdown by throwing so many policy deadlines on immigration and health care to Congress.

In May, Trump was reportedly talked out of vetoing the 2017 spending bill over a lack of wall funding. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether the president would sign on to a deal that still doesn’t fund the wall but does fund Obamacare subsidies and offers a path to citizenship for DACA recipients — or any one of those.

What we do know is that the political calculus of a government shutdown has shifted over time from complete disaster to possible political strategy — and while Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have been rightfully wary of letting it get to this point, Trump and his conservative allies seem willing to go that far.

It’s possible Trump will get the blame; in the 1995 shutdown, Republicans’ approval ratings dropped, as did those of then-President Bill Clinton. But in the 2013 midterms, while Republicans in Congress again got the blame, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings remained relatively unchanged.

In both cases, as George Washington University political scientist John Sides pointed out, the negative impact was “short-lived.”

“Perhaps the bigger questions are whether it results in concrete policy gains by either side,” Sides said. “Clearly many Republicans believed that the 2013 shutdown didn’t really cost them, which vindicated the strategy in their minds.”

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