Congress

Why the shutdown is a good thing for House Democrats

New majority can spend otherwise slow first few weeks of session messaging on opening government

A sign on Monday announces that the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and ice rink are closed due to the partial government shutdown. The standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress over a spending package to fund nine government agencies entered its 18th day Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats don’t want roughly a quarter of the federal government to be shut down, but the situation provides some upsides for the new House majority as the impasse stretches into its 18th day. 

First and foremost, it’s a great messaging opportunity to highlight the differences between Democratic and Republican governing strategies.

President Donald Trump is shouldering most of the blame for the shutdown, according to various polls, and House Democrats are the only ones moving legislation to reopen the government. 

The package of six appropriations bills and a stopgap for the Department of Homeland Security that the House passed last week to open shuttered agencies was composed of Senate bills, providing Democrats with the opportunity to claim Republicans are so intransigent, they won’t even pass their own bills. 

“To choose to keep government shut down by rejecting what the Republicans themselves have written — not us — that the Republicans themselves have written — so there’s something very wrong with this picture,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Thursday ahead of the House votes on the measures. “It can’t possibly be that the president is saying, ‘I will never sign what the Republicans in the Senate have written.’”

Watch: What really happens during a government shutdown, explained

Democrats plan to double down on that message this week as they begin to individually move the bills they packaged together last week. This will allow them to send more targeted messages about specific shuttered agencies and the impact their reduced operations will have on ordinary citizens. 

First up for a Wednesday vote is the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, which includes funding for the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service. 

“This action is necessary so that the American people can receive their tax refunds on schedule,” Pelosi said in a weekend statement. “The certainty of the tax returns of hard-working families should no longer be held hostage to the president’s reckless demands. This bill will then go to the Senate where it has already been passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support.”

The tax refund message is an especially potent one for Democrats to use against Republicans since the upcoming filing season is the first in which taxpayers will see the effects of the GOP tax law. 

Perhaps in an effort to get ahead of the House vote, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought announced Monday that tax refunds will be issued even if the Treasury Department remains shut down. OMB is crafting guidance to make the change from past administrations’ shutdown policies, he said.

Three more votes

The House will also vote this week on three other individual appropriations bills: Interior-Environment, Transportation-Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture. The Senate last year passed those three measures and the Financial Services bill in a four-bill spending package on a 92-6 vote.

“These four appropriations bills, which I will bring to the floor next week and the House will pass, will leave [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch;] McConnell and Senate Republicans with no excuse to avoid taking action to end the Trump shutdown of the agencies they cover,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement. “Let me be clear: these are Republican bills. They are essentially the same funding bills that the Republican Senate wrote and approved by a 92-6 margin during the last Congress.”

Vice President Mike Pence will meet with House Republicans on Tuesday evening to urge them to stand with the president against the piecemeal appropriations bills. Later Tuesday night, Trump will deliver an address to the nation from the Oval Office on border security, in which he’s expected to make his case for why Congress should approve the border wall funding he’s requested.

The primary purpose of Democrats moving the individual appropriations bills is messaging, as Trump has already made clear he will not support the piecemeal approach to reopening government agencies. He wants an agreement on border wall funding before agreeing to open any part of the government that is currently shuttered.

“We won’t be opening until it’s solved,” Trump said during a Rose Garden press conference Friday.  “We won’t be doing pieces. We won’t be doing it in dribs and drabs.”

Democrats also hope to put pressure on McConnell. The Kentucky Republican has said he will not move any legislation to reopen the government that Trump has not agreed to sign, but some in his conference are hoping he’ll change his mind.

“I would like to see him bring the House-passed bills to the Senate floor,” Maine Republican Susan Collins said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We could reopen much of government where there’s no dispute over issues involving certain departments like Ag, Transportation, Housing, and Interior. Let’s get those reopened while the negotiations continue.”

Adding to the pressure on McConnell — who is up for re-election in 2020 — are Senate Democrats who say they’ll block all procedural votes to bring up legislation that is not related to reopening the government. The strategy will be successful if at least 41 of the 47 senators in the Democratic Conference vote against motions to proceed, which require 60 votes to formally begin debate on a bill.

Filling the floor schedule

Another benefit of the shutdown for House Democrats is that it helps them fill the floor schedule in what would otherwise be a slow legislative period.

Before Democratic leaders on Saturday announced their plan to advance individual appropriations bills, the House floor schedule for this week consisted of primarily suspension measures — generally noncontroversial bills that are brought to the floor under an expedited process requiring two-thirds support for passage.

The only other item on the agenda was completing consideration of the House rules package with a vote on Title III. That final piece of the package would authorize the general counsel on behalf of the speaker to intervene in the Texas v. United States lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the 2010 health care law and ensure that protections for pre-existing conditions continue.

Without the votes Democrats have taken and will be taking to reopen government, the first few weeks of the 116th Congress would have provided for a sleepy House floor schedule.

Members have just begun introducing legislation, like the massive voting rights, campaign finance and ethics package House Democrats unveiled Friday and legislation they plan to introduce Tuesday tightening background check laws for gun purchases. 

Moreover, committee assignments have yet to be finalized, so organizational meetings that panels typically hold before beginning legislative business have yet to occur. Only after those events will committees begin reporting out legislation for floor action. 

John T. Bennett contributed to this report. 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.