President Donald Trump and many Democrats and Republicans in Congress all enter the new year spoiling for a fight.
Unresolved issues set aside in 2017 to make way for a tax overhaul are poised to surface early in 2018, giving Trump the opportunity for the confrontation with Washington’s establishment that he’s promised since his election.
The president wants the Mexican border wall he ran on as a candidate, but that hasn’t advanced farther than prototypes in the southern California desert. Democrats want protection for young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, whose lives were upended by Trump’s decision to end a program sparing them from deportation. Republicans need to deliver on promises to rein in the reach of the federal government in the hope of avoiding a wipeout in the November midterm elections.
“People are not going to come back singing the Sound of Music together. January is going to be contentious,” Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said in an interview Friday.
A fight over government spending and immigration this month may bleed into a year-long battle over even bigger issues — House Speaker Paul Ryan’s push to cut spending on the social safety net and Trump’s campaign promise to finance a massive infrastructure construction plan. The backdrop for those battles will be the midterm election in November in which Democrats hope to take one or both chambers of Congress, an outcome that would derail Trump’s agenda for the remainder of his term.
And hanging over all of Washington’s business is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a probe that has already snared two top Trump campaign officials and an adviser. There is no sign that the investigation is concluding, contrary to the insistence of White House lawyers late last year.
If an urgent attempt to strike a deal on spending and immigration fails this week, the federal government may again be on the brink of a shutdown.
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Legislative Director Marc Short will meet with Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress on Wednesday at the Capitol, said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. There is some optimism among congressional aides that they will strike a deal to resolve some of the most acute issues — especially spending and immigration.
Congress last year repeatedly delayed passing legislation to fund the government through October. Some Democrats want to use the next deadline, Jan. 19, as leverage to force Trump to sign legislation to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.” Trump said on Friday that he won’t agree unless Democrats consent to fund a border wall and to a broader and more controversial overhaul of the immigration system.
“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc.,” Trump said in a tweet from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“There is an agreement that can be reached” on immigration, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, said in an interview with Fox News Tuesday. “It’s got to start with border security,” he added, without mentioning a border wall specifically.
Meadows says his caucus is ready to stand its own ground on immigration issues, including seeking an end to family preferences and the diversity visa lottery, a program that provides visas to people in countries with low rates of migration to the U.S.
During an appearance Sunday on "Face the Nation," he also indicated the conservatives he leads are skeptical of a spending deal. And earlier in the week he said the Freedom Caucus was prepared to fight over reauthorization of a controversial government surveillance program that they reluctantly agreed to extend only until Jan. 19.
“It looks like we’re going to spend more money on growing the government in January than perhaps the biggest amount of money that we spent since the Obama stimulus plan. And that’s a concern for conservatives,” he told CBS News.
On top of spending and immigration, lawmakers need to address GOP demands for higher defense spending and the fate of children’s health insurance and Obamacare subsidies. Most likely, some of those issues will be put off again.
“The Republicans decided that tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent were more important than addressing the crisis and lives of the people,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in December.
Congressional negotiators are trying to reach a spending deal that would increase the federal discretionary budget by $200 billion over two years. Republicans want to increase defense spending by $54 billion and non-defense programs by $37 billion this year. Democrats want equal increases in the two sides of the budget.
Ryan is under increasing pressure from defense hawks on the House Armed Services Committee who reluctantly backed the current stopgap spending bill on assurances a deal is near to increase Pentagon spending.
“Every day that passes there is more damage,” the committee’s chairman, Mac Thornberry of Texas, said before Christmas. He added that he thinks a deal on budget limits is “doable” in January.
It’s undecided whether a budget deal would also raise the federal debt ceiling, which was again hit in December. The Treasury Department can probably delay a default until March, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated.
Lawmakers need to agree on new spending to aid victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, primarily in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and wildfires in California. The House passed an $81 billion bill in December that stalled in the Senate amid complaints it didn’t fully address rebuilding for Texas and Puerto Rico in particular.
The immigration fight began in September when Trump ordered the end of the DACA program protecting almost 1 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Democrats insist that the next spending bill must enact the program’s protections into law. The government will stop renewing work permits for the “Dreamers” in March.
Trump’s proposal to prohibit immigrants from sponsoring family members to join them in the U.S., a foundation of the nation’s immigration system for decades, enjoys little support in Congress, outside of Meadows’ caucus and a handful of Republican senators.
Pelosi said in December that DACA is “a discrete emergency” that should be resolved on its own “instead of saying, ‘well, we have to wait until we have to do everything that we want to do on immigration.’”
But Latino Democrats are losing patience. Before Christmas, 16 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus led by its chairwoman, Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, marched to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office to demand more support from Democrats in the upper chamber.
FISA, Health Care
The electronic surveillance program known as FISA section 702 — which allows spying on U.S. citizens without court warrants — was extended through Jan. 19 under the last stopgap spending bill. Some Republican libertarians and privacy advocates in the Democratic Party want the program reduced or eliminated, while security hawks want a long-term extension.
Several health-care issues are also outstanding. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine voted for the GOP tax-cut bill in exchange for a promise from her party’s leaders to vote on two bills aimed at shoring up Obamacare. One would restore subsidies for co-payments and deductibles suspended by Trump, while the other would establish a reinsurance program to help insurers cover people with chronic and costly illnesses.
McConnell may be able to get the legislation through the Senate, but the House is less receptive. Ryan has indicated some openness to the reinsurance measure; Meadows said that appears to be less controversial than renewing the cost-sharing subsidies.
Meadows conceded that Republican leaders may strike a deal with Democrats on budget caps, raising spending levels and providing even more aid to hurricane-stricken states and Puerto Rico than the $81 billion bill that passed the House in December. Such a compromise could probably could pass with Democratic support and without conservative votes.
But under no circumstances should Ryan attach an immigration deal to that bill, Meadows said. “If Republican leaders do that then they will have shown that they can’t lead,” he said.