Republicans fail to address Democrat concerns about Dreamers and federal agencies now face a repeat of the 2013 closure
The United States is on the brink of its first government shutdown in nearly five years after senators failed to reach a deal to keep the lights on.
An effort by Republicans to keep the government open for one month failed in a vote on Friday night as it did not address Democratic concerns about young undocumented immigrants know as Dreamers.
The House voted Thursday by a margin of 230-197 to advance a government funding bill after speaker Paul Ryan made concessions to conservative Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus. These included a vote on increased military funding, a potential vote on a hardline immigration bill and other “subplots”, which Mark Meadows, the head of the Freedom Caucus, declined to share with reporters. The vote was almost entirely along party lines, with only six Democrats and 11 Republicans breaking ranks.
The bill did not contain any provisions to protect Dreamers, which has been a key Democratic priority since Donald Trump announced in September that he was rescinding an Obama-era program, known as Daca. The program, implemented by Barack Obama through executive action in 2012, enabled young, undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children to obtain temporary legal status.
After the bill passed the House, Ryan preemptively tried to blame Democrats for any government shutdown, telling reporters: “The only people standing in the way of keeping the government open are Senate Democrats.”
In a final dash to avert a shutdown, Trump cancelled plans to depart for his Mar-a-lago resort in Florida, where the president was due to celebrate the anniversary of his first year in office. Instead, Trump spent the day negotiating with congressional leaders.
But despite hosting Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office on Friday afternoon, which the president described as an “excellent preliminary meeting”, both sides were unable to reach an agreement.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic turned confidant who helped craft a bipartisan bill to protect Dreamers, entreated the president to “close the deal”.
As lawmakers scrambled to chart a path forward, progressive activists and Dreamers held a rally against the illuminated backdrop of the US Capitol. They implored lawmakers to reject any funding measure that did not include a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 700,000 Dreamers whose protections will expire in March barring intervention from Congress.
“For all those Dreamers out there, our message for each and every one of you: there are those in our government that see you, that hear you, that believe and know that this country belongs to you,” said Congressman Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat of Massachusetts, who repeated the message in Spanish.
Funding for the government was initially due to expire in September, but lawmakers have since passed a series of stopgap measures to keep operations running in the absence of a long-term spending deal.
The last short-term extension, which was passed in December, pushed the deadline to 19 January while leaving the fate of Dreamers in limbo. Democrats subsequently faced backlash from immigration advocates and their base for failing to hold the line on Daca after having vowed not to adjourn for the new year without a solution.
Trump gave Congress until 5 March to replace the program. But Democrats have insisted the only way to resolve the deep partisan divide over immigration is by tying it to a must-pass bill that would simultaneously avert a shutdown and enshrine protections for Dreamers into law.
Trump showed a brief willingness to compromise last week by engaging lawmakers from both parties on a potential deal to legalize Dreamers in return for beefing up border security and changes to certain visa programs. But the president dramatically undermined bipartisan talks by questioning the need to admit immigrants from places like Haiti and El Salvador, dismissing them “shithole countries” in a private meeting with lawmakers.
Republicans meanwhile chose to move ahead with a short-term bill to fund the government, arguing that immigration was a separate issue to be dealt with at a later time. In a bid to apply pressure on Democrats, they also included in their measure a six-year authorization of the popular children’s health insurance program (Chip). The program, which provides healthcare coverage to 9 million children, expired in October.
The White House signaled it was bracing for a shutdown, with Trump teasing the prospect on more than one occasion Friday.
As lawmakers continued to huddle behind closed doors, the president tweeted: “Not looking good for our great Military or Safety & Security on the very dangerous Southern Border. Dems want a Shutdown in order to help diminish the great success of the Tax Cuts, and what they are doing for our booming economy.”
Not looking good for our great Military or Safety & Security on the very dangerous Southern Border. Dems want a Shutdown in order to help diminish the great success of the Tax Cuts, and what they are doing for our booming economy.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 20, 2018
Senior administration officials said on a conference call on Friday they were hashing out a plan “to minimize the impact of a shutdown”.
Federal law requires agencies to shut down if Congress has not appropriated money to fund them. In previous shutdowns, services deemed “essential”, such as the work of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, have continued.
Graham held out hope for a compromise, telling reporters there was broad consensus to eventually come together and resolve the outstanding issues before Congress.
“I may live to eat these words,” Graham said, “but the Congress is beginning to realize that the American people expect more of us.
“Between the soldier in the field and the Daca recipient, we have some real world reasons to get our act together and grow up, and I may be wrong, but I think we are getting there.”