The fight over government funding: Democrats derail bill aimed at averting shutdown

How will a federal government shutdown affect national parks? Ethan McKinley, superintendent of the First State National Historical Park, said, “We fully expect the government to remain open, however in the event of a shutdown, national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures.” (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats appear to have derailed a Republican bill aimed at preventing a federal shutdown set to begin as soon as the calendar flipped to Saturday.

Friday’s late-night vote means at least a short government closure is all but unavoidable. There have been no clear public signs that the two parties have significantly narrowed their disputes over immigration and the budget.

The House approved the measure Thursday over Democratic opposition. It would keep agencies afloat through Feb. 16, but Democrats want a package lasting just days in hopes of intensifying pressure on the GOP to compromise.

Republicans control the Senate 51-49. The GOP needed 60 votes to prevail, but the tally was 50-48 as of 11 p.m. Eastern time. The Senate is awaiting a final vote from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The lawmakers and President Trump’s White House mounted last-ditch negotiations to stave off what had come to appear as the inevitable, with the parties in stare-down mode over federal spending and proposals to protect some 700,000 younger immigrants from deportation.

After hours of negotiating, the Senate scheduled a late-night vote on a House-passed plan.

“Not looking good,” Trump tweeted Friday evening. It appeared likely to fail.

The election-year standoff marked a test of the president’s much vaunted deal-making skills — and of both parties’ political fortitude. Republicans, who control both Congress and the White House, faced the prospect of being blamed for the display of dysfunction — just the fourth shutdown in a quarter-century. It could also threaten to slow any GOP momentum, one month after passage of the party’s signature tax cut law.

Democrats, too, risked being labeled obstructionist. Republicans branded the confrontation a “Schumer shutdown” and argued that Democrats were harming fellow Americans to protect “illegal immigrants.”

Trump summoned Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to the White House Friday afternoon in hopes of cutting a deal. But the two New Yorkers, who pride themselves on their negotiating abilities, emerged from the meeting at the White House without an agreement, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress continued to pass off responsibility.

“We made some progress, but we still have a good number of disagreements,” Schumer said upon returning to Capitol Hill. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told CNN that “Not much has changed” over the course of the day, but he predicted a deal would be reached by Monday, when most government offices are to reopen after the weekend.

Democrats in the Senate served notice they would filibuster a four-week extension, the government-wide funding bill that cleared the House Thursday evening. They’re seeking an even shorter extension that they think will keep the pressure on the White House to cut a deal to protect “dreamer” immigrants — who were brought to the country as children and are now here illegally — before their legal protection runs out in March.

But a White House official said Trump would oppose a mini-short-term agreement to keep the government open through the weekend, suggesting lawmakers would be in their exact same position in a few days.

For his part, Trump described his discussion with Schumer as an “excellent preliminary meeting,” tweeting that lawmakers are “Making progress – four week extension would be best!”

Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said Trump told Schumer to work things out with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. McConnell did not attend the meeting because he was not invited, a Senate GOP aide said.

Trump has been an unreliable negotiator in the weeks leading up to the showdown. Earlier this week he tweeted opposition to the four-week plan, forcing the White House to later affirmed his support. He expressed openness to extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, only to reject a bipartisan proposal. His disparaging remarks about African and Haitian immigrants last week helped derail further negotiations.

Still, officials said the president has been working the phones trying to avert a shutdown. The president had been set to leave Friday afternoon to attend a fundraiser at his Palm Beach, Florida, estate marking the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, but delayed his travel until at least Saturday.

“I think the president’s been very clear: he’s not leaving until this is finished,” Mulvaney told reporters.

As word of the Schumer meeting spread, the White House hastened to reassure Republican congressional leaders that Trump would not make any major policy concessions, said a person familiar with the conversations but not authorized to be quoted by name. Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said Trump told Schumer to work things out with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

On Capitol Hill, McConnell said Americans at home would be watching to see “which senators make the patriotic decision” and which “vote to shove aside veterans, military families and vulnerable children to hold the entire country hostage… until we pass an immigration bill.”

Across the Capitol, the House backed away from a plan to adjourn for a one-week recess, meaning the GOP-controlled chamber could wait for a last-minute compromise that would require a new vote.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said Schumer, insisting on more urgency in talks on immigration. “In another month, we’ll be right back here, at this moment, with the same web of problems at our feet, in no better position to solve them.”

The four-week measure would be the fourth stopgap spending bill since the current budget year started in October. A pile of unfinished Capitol Hill business has been on hold, first as Republicans ironed out last fall’s tax bill and now as Democrats insist on progress on immigration. Talks on a budget deal to ease tight spending limits on both the Pentagon and domestic agencies are on hold, as is progress on a huge $80 billion-plus disaster aid bill.

Before Thursday night’s House approval, GOP leaders sweetened the stopgap measure with legislation to extend for six years a popular health care program for children from low-income families and two-year delays in unpopular “Obamacare” taxes on medical devices and generous employer-provided health plans.

A shutdown would be the first since 2013, when tea party Republicans — in a strategy not unlike the one Schumer is employing now — sought to use a must-pass funding bill to try to force then-President Barack Obama to delay implementation of his marquee health care law. At the time, Trump told Fox & Friends that the ultimate blame for a shutdown lies at the top. “I really think the pressure is on the president,” he said.

Arguing that Trump’s predecessors “weaponized” that shutdown, Mulvaney said Friday the budget office would direct agencies to work to mitigate the impact this time. That position is a striking role-reversal for the conservative former congressman, who was one of the architects of the 2013 shutdown over the Affordable Care Act.

With no agreement by midnight, the government would begin immediately locking its doors. The impact would initially be spotty — since most agencies would be closed until Monday — but each party would be gambling the public would blame the other.

In the event of a shutdown, food inspections, federal law enforcement, airport security checks, and other vital services would continue, as would Social Security, other federal benefit programs and military operations.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the VA was given advance funding and will continue to operate if there is a shutdown.

It is unclear if U.S. Wildlife Refuges, such as Bombay Hook in Delaware, will be impacted.

“At some point, Congress needs to do better than government-by-crisis, short-term fixes, and sidestepping difficult issues,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., in an email sent yesterday evening. “That time is now. With government funding set to run out tomorrow night, I don’t reach this conclusion lightly, and I still believe we can keep the government open, solve the issues we’ve failed to address for several months, and govern this country the way the American people expect us to, but the short-term bill that House Republicans passed tonight simply doesn’t meet the test of basic governance.

“This bill avoids solving our months-overdue challenge of adequately funding our military, which is already stretched too thin, and providing a balanced overall plan for spending. This one-month temporary patch ignores the fact that Florida, Texas, California, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still in desperate need of relief from natural disasters that happened months ago now. It leaves unfunded Community Health Centers that thousands of Delawareans rely on for basic health needs. Finally, this bill effectively tells Dreamers, whom President Trump has arbitrarily sentenced to deportation beginning on March 5, that this country doesn’t want them here. Failing to address all these issues is no way to run a country, and I will not support it.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a bipartisan, compromise immigration deal that would protect Dreamers, invest in our border security, and make commonsense reforms to our immi-gration system. Democrats are more than willing to make new investments in the military as part of a sensible, long-term spending bill. We can reauthorize and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Community Health Centers, and we can lend a helping hand to millions of hurricane and wildfire victims who need assistance.

“We can get back to setting a budget every year, making smart investments, and compromising between the parties to operate the United States government the way it should be. The reality, though, is that Republicans, who control the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, are right now unable to govern effectively and refuse to work across the aisle in a meaningful way.

“I’ve spent the last several weeks working to find a way to keep the government open and ad-dress these issues with both my Democratic and Republican colleagues. If the government shuts down tomorrow, I will continue to work to ensure that any potential shutdown is a short one. If, over the next day, it appears that serious bipartisan negotiations are underway and we can conclude them by keeping the government open a few days, I would support that, but the fact is that we need to move past this impasse for good.”

Delaware’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester commented: “(Thursday) night, I voted against kicking the can down the road for the fourth time this fiscal year. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and negotiating with Democrats, House Republicans again advanced another short-term spending bill that fails to address a number of high-priority legislative items, including disaster relief, a plan to protect our DREAMers, a long-term flood insurance reauthorization, funding for Community Health Centers, and a fix for the health care market place. We need to come together and craft a long-term spending package that provides our military and social services programs the funding they need to serve the American people.”

Delaware State News staff writer Matt Bittle also contributed to this article.

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