Soon after the new Congress convenes Thursday, the Democratic House will take the first steps toward ending a shutdown that began under unified Republican government.
The politics of Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi putting forward bills that could reopen about 25 percent of the government are decidedly positive for the California Democrat — especially when it comes to unifying the diverse caucus she’ll lead for the next two years.
“To the extent that we think there are some divisions within the Democratic Party that Pelosi is going to have to negotiate — this is a no-brainer because this is Democrats standing against Trump, which is one of their most uniting principles,” said Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Ending the shutdown, now in its 12th day, is also an incentive for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who struck an agreement with his fellow Republicans in December that the Senate would not hold any votes on spending bills until President Donald Trump and Democrats reach an agreement.
“Sixty votes in the Senate, a majority in the House and President Trump’s signature. That’s what’s needed. That is what will end this regrettable episode,” the Kentucky Republican said from the Senate floor.
That promise will not, however, hold McConnell back from advancing judicial and executive nominations until the government is reopened, according to McConnell spokesman David Popp.
But the Senate GOP leader still has an impetus to work with Democrats on some type of accord, according to Reynolds, even if some Republicans have hinted they want a prolonged shutdown to hamstring the first few weeks of Pelosi’s speakership.
“I think there’s a degree to which McConnell would prefer to resolve this impasse quickly and not have it drag on, so the Senate can turn its attention toward things he’d prefer the Senate be spending time on,” Reynolds said.
The Democratic House moving ahead of the Republican Senate isn’t solely about politics.
The origination clause of the Constitution is broadly interpreted to mean that all spending bills must originate in the House — not the Senate. At any other time, there would likely be legislation pending in the Senate that would allow McConnell to move first if he wanted. Because the 116th Congress is just beginning, McConnell and Senate Republicans must wait on Pelosi’s first move.
Negotiations will need the approval of both parties in the Senate, which means Pelosi has motivation to put forward legislation that can gain broad bipartisan support and make it to Trump’s desk.
The plan she settled on will include two House votes Thursday. The first will be on a package of six remaining fiscal 2019 spending bills, modeled primarily on measures that have previously passed the Senate or been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee with strong bipartisan support.
The second is a vote on a continuing resolution for the Department of Homeland Security running through Feb. 8. That measure would fund border fencing at an annualized rate of $1.3 billion — the amount Congress approved and Trump signed as part of the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill.
But it contains none of the new money for a wall that Trump wants, totaling $3.7 billion above the previous year. And Pelosi’s effort seems to be little more than the opening bid in a new chapter of negotiations that will begin Wednesday.
“We are giving the Republicans the opportunity to take yes for an answer,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Democrats on Tuesday. “Senate Republicans have already supported this legislation, and if they reject it now, they will be fully complicit in chaos and destruction of the President’s third shutdown of his term.”
Pelosi Seeks a Return to Regular Order, Like Many Before Her
Way out for Republicans?
The House legislation has the support of Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. But Trump has already signaled his opposition if not yet an explicit veto threat, and McConnell has said he won’t bring up a bill that Trump hasn’t endorsed.
The first glimpse into whether the two sides can break the stalemate could come as early as Wednesday, when congressional leaders from both parties are expected to head to the White House to receive a “briefing” on border security, according to a source familiar with the plans.
A House leadership aide said separately the meeting will include talks over how to end the partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22. But it’s unclear whether any serious bargaining will take place.
Moving from unified Republican control to a divided Congress could give Republicans the political cover they need to advance spending legislation that they might have had trouble accepting in December, according to James Wallner, senior fellow of the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank.
“The Democratic majority gives them a way out,” Wallner said. “Leadership will likely go to the most committed to funding the wall and maybe the president and say ‘Look, we can’t win now because the House is never going to pass this.’ And at that point, it will be easier for them to say ‘We have to accept X’ with X being whatever they negotiated behind closed doors.”
Impact on paychecks
Outside of the Capitol Hill calculations about how a final spending deal can be spun to the political advantage of both parties, the real-world effects of a partial government shutdown continue to mount. Some national parks, funded through the Interior Department, are shuttered.
The administration found a way Friday night to pay roughly 42,000 Coast Guard uniformed personnel who were at risk of not receiving their most recent paycheck. The Department of Homeland Security also changed its guidance that originally said the Federal Emergency Management Agency couldn’t renew or issue new flood insurance policies during the shutdown. Both moves followed backlash from members of Congress.
But if the shutdown goes much longer, the federal government will be unable to pay civilian employees at the Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury departments when the first paychecks of 2019 are slated to go out on Friday, Jan. 11.
Without some sort of spending agreement by then, about 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed or working through the shutdown will likely have to make tough financial decisions.
That doesn’t appear to be dampening Trump’s insistence a final spending deal include border security spending — even if he’s not settled on a dollar amount as seen in dozens of tweets he’s sent since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
He’s repeatedly criticized Pelosi and Schumer for not being at the negotiating table. And in a tweet Tuesday morning, Trump clearly wasn’t a fan of House Democrats’ new plan to reopen the government and punt the border barrier fight until February.
“The Democrats, much as I suspected, have allocated no money for a new Wall. So imaginative! The problem is, without a Wall there can be no real Border Security — and our Country must finally have a Strong and Secure Southern Border!” he wrote.
In a tweet later Tuesday, however, Trump seemed open to a deal: “Border Security and the Wall ‘thing’ and Shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as Speaker! Let’s make a deal?”
R Street’s Wallner said Trump and GOP leaders will ultimately be willing to make a deal at somewhere north of the $1.3 billion the Democrats have proposed but below Trump’s $5 billion wall demand. He said if Senate Republicans really wanted to fight for the $5 billion, they would not have left Washington during the holidays.
“It seems to me that if Republicans actually want to fund the government and fund the wall at the same time, the first step is not to close the Senate,” he said. “And what did they do? They closed the Senate.”
Correction, Jan. 2, 2 p.m. | This report has been corrected to reflect that McConnell’s pledge to withhold further votes until there is agreement between Trump and Senate Democrats applies only to spending legislation.