After a mid-day visit to the Capitol — his second in as many weeks — President Donald Trump will host congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, as Democrats look to cash in on a deal they struck with him in September to push debt and spending questions to Dec. 8.
Republicans need support from both parties to extend government funding to Dec. 9 and beyond. But Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members have complained for months about both the substance of GOP-crafted bills and the processes used to write them, which complicates any effort to corral their votes.
The more cooperation Democrats provide on year-end spending, the more time there is for Republicans to push their own policy priorities on a party line.
Democrats have slammed GOP health care bills as an assault on vulnerable people, and developing tax legislation as a windfall for wealthy corporations and individuals at the expense of lower- and middle-income earners. Members of Congress’ minority party have openly questioned whether GOP leaders are dealing with them in good faith.
With government funding set to expire in 10 days, a shutdown is a distinct possibility. Further complicating matters is the fact that both sides want to increase spending over sequestration-mandated levels.
Meanwhile, the president has said Congress should renew its charge against the 2010 health care law; the GOP could continue to revise its tax overhaul; and the Senate is moving aggressively to confirm Trump’s judicial picks, some of whom have been deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association.
No matter the final shape of a short-term continuing resolution or omnibus measure to fund the government through the rest of fiscal 2018, the dynamics on Capitol Hill are unlikely to change.
It all begs the question: Why cooperate with Trump and congressional Republican leaders at all on the coming spending measure?
Put another way, will Democrats choose to secure a relatively modest victory on domestic spending that also allows their enemies to go on pursuing policies they hate — or will they let the GOP stew in its own juices, knowing Republicans could very well crash and burn just as the 2018 midterm election cycle is starting to heat up?
Looking for the upper hand
The answers will begin to emerge Tuesday afternoon after Trump huddles with Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
The day will begin with Trump’s third trip to the Hill in four weeks and second appearance before the Senate GOP conference’s weekly lunch meeting to stump for the tax measure. Then he will host the leaders back at the White House.
“This is one of the few times they are going to need our votes,” a senior Democratic leadership source said. “The reason to cooperate is not limited to getting more domestic spending. This is an opportunity for Democrats to get a number of things we care about signed into law.”
The Democratic source called it “a no-brainer that we’d be cooperating,” citing a calculation that Republicans do not want a government shutdown while they control the House, Senate and White House, along with the “very limited opportunities for the minority to advance” its agenda.
The one thing longer than the Democrats’ grievance list is their wish list for the spending measure. They hope to protect union pensions, secure federal assistance for student loans and provide help for community health centers.
“We have a lot of work to do before the end of the year and precious little time to do it,” Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor, before listing a number of other year-end priorities, including cost-sharing reduction payments for health insurance, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
“Texas, Lousiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands are desperately in need of additional aid to recover from natural disasters,” Schumer added to the year-end list.
“Hopefully, we can make progress on an agreement that covers those time-sensitive issues and keeps the government running and working for the American people,” Schumer said, in a nod to Tuesday’s meeting.
Steve Bell, a former senior aide for the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees, said Democrats “strongly possess the whip hand on the spending bill.”
“Democrats really have the lion’s share of the leverage for several reasons,” said Bell, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If there was a government shutdown, Republicans would get the blame. And in the back of every Republicans’ mind is this: President Trump already sold them out once.”
DACA could be a bellwether issue. While Trump signed an executive order in September ending the Obama-era immigration program, which was designed to protect from deportation people who came to the United States illegally as children, he has sounded willing to consider signing legislation containing similar provisions if Congress were to send it to his desk.
“We believe we’ll get it in the omnibus bill, because there are both Republicans and Democrats who want it,” Schumer said of DACA on Nov. 14, in just one example of Democratic leaders’ rhetoric since Republicans expressed frustration that the September deal handed Democrats ample year-end leverage.
Democratic leaders are betting that Trump will again be in the mood to deal and eager to avert a government shutdown on his watch.
“I fully intend that we will not leave here without the Dream Act passing, without a DACA fix. And we have made that very clear,” Pelosi said earlier this month.
Pelosi has also sounded forceful on domestic spending, telling reporters in late October that Democrats “are insisting on parity” with any increased defense spending.
The senior Democratic source indicated that Democratic leaders see few potential “wins” for Trump and Republicans in the emerging omnibus deal.
They contend that measure will not include funds for a Southern border wall, something Trump has said Democrats must give him in return for his shutdown-averting signature on the bill.
“The best Republican outcome is avoiding a government shutdown,” the senior Democratic source said. “No voter is going to go to the polls in November and say, ‘Well, the Republicans kept the government open, so for that reason, I’ll vote for them.’ They’d just be doing the basic function of government for the majority [party].”
Bell predicted Democrats will attempt to get several things on their list, “but not everything.”
“Democrats have to participate here. They have a strong position to say, ‘If domestic spending and defense spending are not addressed at the same level, and if we don’t do DACA now and reauthorize CHIP, we will shut down the government,’” he said. The spending authority for CHIP expired at the end of September.
Bell also predicts “lots of chaos” over the next few weeks.
“I suspect in their meeting tomorrow ... the president will say, ‘I don’t want a government shutdown,’” he said. “And I bet Chuck Schumer will have an answer.”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.