Continued Funding Drama – Shutdown; Dreamers; Caps
Congress Must Pass Spending Measure Before Thursday to Avoid Another Government Shutdown
Members of Congress will need to agree on a spending bill before this Thursday to stave off another government shutdown. Complicating these efforts is the fact that the House is only scheduled to be in session through Tuesday, as House Democrats are scheduled to hold their annual three-day retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland starting Wednesday. Spending negotiations were also cut short last week, when House and Senate Republicans went on a three-day retreat in West Virginia and Senate Democrats held a one-day retreat at Mount Vernon. These retreats provide opportunities for members of each party to discuss their legislative plans for the coming year.
Given such a tight timeline, policymakers are signaling that they will opt for another continuing resolution (CR) to extend funding beyond this Thursday, rather than a long-term spending bill. If passed, this CR, which is expected to extend funding through March 23, would be the fifth in a series of short-term spending fixes since the start of the current fiscal year on October 1, 2017. Democrats and Republicans have indicated that they will support the CR, meaning there is a very low chance of a government shutdown later this week.
The last time policymakers were facing a spending deadline, in advance of the shutdown on January 20, Democrats refused to sign off on a spending measure without protections for “Dreamers”, undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. Democrats’ efforts to tie a spending deal to protection for Dreamers were unsuccessful, and Congress still has not passed any legislation on this front. Now, in the context of another imminent spending deadline, Democrats are not planning to use the current spending negotiations as a way to force a resolution on immigration, saying instead that they are confident that bipartisan talks will culminate in an immigration bill that can be embraced by both parties.
Bipartisan talks have been led over the last few weeks by a group of about 30 senators from both parties. Two members of the group, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE), plan to introduce a bill today that offers a path to permanent status for Dreamers while also addressing border security. While this bill may garner enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate, it is unlikely to pass the House, where conservative members of the Republican caucus favor immigration legislation similar to what has been offered by President Donald Trump. President Trump’s four-part immigration proposal includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for $25 billion for the building of a wall along the southern border, an end to the visa lottery program, and stricter limits on family reunification. This proposal has been roundly denounced by Democrats in the House and Senate. If an agreement on immigration is not reached by the end of this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says that he intends to begin an open debate on immigration starting next week.
In addition to arriving at an agreement on immigration, policymakers still need to work out a deal on raising the spending caps on discretionary spending, including for defense and domestic programs, before passing a final omnibus spending bill for the remainder of the fiscal year. While Republicans and Democrats said last week that they are close to a deal on spending caps, members of the two parties continue to disagree over how some of the money will be allocated and over offsetting spending cuts.
US at Risk of Default Unless Debt Ceiling is Raised by February 28
Amidst this funding upheaval, Congress must also contend with the federal debt. Experts predict that the government is at risk of default unless the debt ceiling—the government’s borrowing authority—is raised in the next month or so. In fact, the Treasury Department urged Congress last week to raise the debt ceiling by the end of February. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had previously said a debt default could be held off until late March or early April. If Congress does not act to raise the debt ceiling, and we do experience a default on our national debt, the consequences would be catastrophic for both domestic programs and global markets.
State of the Union Address Targets Safety Net Programs
Last Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. His address largely focused on the President’s priority issues, specifically tax and immigration policy. Trump again claimed that his immigration proposal is a bipartisan effort even though Democrats remain entirely opposed to it. Unfortunately, his speech is unlikely to provide momentum for an immigration deal on his terms – which includes a wall and radical changes to a number of current immigration provisions.
In the address, the President also briefly asserted that policies should “lift citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.” His statement echoes longstanding and misleading arguments against safety net programs and signals that the administration will continue to pursue work requirements and other changes to vital programs like Medicaid and SNAP, changes which could limit access and further exacerbate health and nutrition disparities.
Release of White House Budget Expected Imminently
The White House is expected to release its annual budget proposals for FY 2019, as soon as next Monday, February 12. The White House budget is one of the first steps of the annual appropriations process and reflects the administration’s funding priorities for the coming year. Last year, President Trump’s budget included several significant spending cuts to health care and government services, including zeroing out social programs like the Community Services Block Grant (which provides funding for Meals on Wheels), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Legal Services Corporation.
Congress holds the power to authorize and disburse funds, and it is up to members of Congress to decide whether to accept the President’s recommendations. Last year, Congress rejected many of the spending cuts included in the White House budget. NWA will continue to update members on the unfolding appropriations process and the impact of White House recommendations on the funding of key government programs, like WIC.