On April 29, President Trump hopes to be commemorating his 100th day in office by touting his successful appointment of a Supreme Court justice and his quick victories in rolling back the Obama-era regulatory regime. But if Congress does not strike the first truly bipartisan deal of his presidency by then, Trump will instead spend his 100th day explaining to the public why the government he’s charged with running has partially shut down.
Federal funding for most departments runs out on April 28, and House and Senate staffers are using the ongoing two-week congressional recess to negotiate a spending bill that would cover the final five months of the fiscal year. Despite their minority status in Washington, Democrats are feeling bullish about the talks, and the 100-day marker is a big reason why. Still reeling from their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republican leaders have little appetite for an all-out brawl that could result in a shutdown at a time when they are trying to prove to their constituents they can effectively run the country.
“Our Republican colleagues know that since they control the House, the Senate, and the White House that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don’t want it,” Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, told reporters on Tuesday. “We want to make sure it’s a good budget that meets our principles, but so far, so good.”
Schumer’s optimism means Trump is unlikely to get all of his top priorities in whatever agreement Congress can reach. Democrats have leverage in the negotiations because Republicans will need eight of their votes to clear a filibuster in the Senate and because conservatives in the House have been reluctant in recent years to vote for any bill that appropriates significant amounts of taxpayer money. Democrats are using that power to refuse to grant Trump any of the $1.4 billion he sought to begin development of his signature southern border wall, and Republican leaders have signaled they are content to delay a debate on the issue until Congress considers funding for 2018. Nor is the president likely to see the $18 billion in cuts to domestic programs the White House is seeking this fiscal year to help offset the boost in military spending that Trump wants even more.
And in a move likely to anger some conservatives, GOP leaders are not even pushing to include a provision blocking funds to Planned Parenthood that they repeatedly—and unsuccessfully—demanded under former President Barack Obama. They had hoped to insert the measure in their health-care bill because it did not require Democratic votes, but with that effort stalled, so is the drive to defund Planned Parenthood. “It really hasn’t been an issue,” said one Democratic congressional aide briefed on the talks. The GOP has kept quiet about the discussions, and aides to senior Republicans in the House and Senate declined to comment on the remaining sticking points.
Thus far, the Trump administration has had minimal involvement in the negotiations on Capitol Hill, and Democrats like Schumer say it’s best for all involved that it stay that way. (That includes Democratic leaders leery of being seen as striking a deal with a president despised by their liberal base.) “If the president doesn’t interfere and insist on poison-pill amendments to be shoved down the throat of the Congress, then we can come up with an agreement,” he said. Schumer was referring obliquely to a request from the White House that Congress include a provision in the bill that would withhold money from so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws.
Democrats, meanwhile, have policy demands of their own for the legislation. After Trump threatened to withhold subsidies for insurance companies under Obamacare unless Democrats agreed to help the GOP repeal the law, they want to add a provision to the spending bill requiring the administration to pay them out. House Republicans sued the Obama administration over those payments, but they are now under intense pressure from the insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce to maintain them at least temporarily to prevent a further destabilization of the individual market that could lead to premium spikes for consumers.
Trump isn’t exactly going to come away empty-handed. Lawmakers are likely to approve at least some additional money for defense spending, even if it’s not the full $30 billion the president requested or if it’s not offset with steep spending cuts elsewhere. And Congress may place restrictions on how the Pentagon can use the money, since the administration wants to spend much of it on buying new weapons and equipment. “We don’t just cut $30 billion checks and say, ‘Buy all the toys you want,’” the Democratic aide said.
Lawmakers might also agree to give the administration money to enhance border security in ways that do not include construction of the physical wall, which might allow Trump to declare a partial victory. “We’ve made very clear to Congress that the president’s priorities are increasing military spending and security of our border,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said last week when asked whether Trump would insist on money for the wall as part of the spending bill. “We’re going to continue to have conversations with Congress, and we feel confident that they’ll do their job.”
Democrats caution that the negotiations could still blow up once members of Congress return to Washington next week. Will the House Freedom Caucus make demands of the GOP leadership, and will the leadership try to appease conservatives rather than jettisoning them in favor of a deal with Democrats? Will Trump reinsert himself into the talks with a Twitter rant? The conservative who sparked the last government shutdown in 2013, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is already warning that Schumer might, in effect, try to bait Republicans into a crisis for which they’ll get the blame. “I do have some concern that to appease the radical left, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats may do everything they can to try to provoke a shutdown,” he said earlier this week, according to The Texas Tribune.
There’s good reason to be skeptical about the prospects for a deal. The Republican Congress has had a sputtering start to the year, falling short on a health-care bill for which they needed no help from Democrats. Schumer and Trump have spent more time insulting each other than bargaining, and the Democratic leader has little to gain politically from sparing the new president a nightmare on his 100th day in office.
That historical marker may be arbitrary, but the image-conscious Trump is reportedly invested in selling the public on his early, if limited, success. That might be incentive enough for an agreement. Trump isn’t getting a major health-care or tax-reform bill anytime soon. After 100 days in the White House, he might just have to settle for keeping the government open.
(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)