WASHINGTON — If the three-day government shutdown looked messy, the next three weeks could bring a congressional maelstrom.
Monday’s breakthrough guaranteed two things, and only two things: That there will be another funding cliff on Feb. 8 and that the deeply contentious immigration debate will rage on.
The Senate passed a three-week spending bill on Monday and sent it to the House for final approval, allowing the federal government to reopen Tuesday. Democrats agreed to support the funding bill after winning a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring up an immigration bill on Feb. 8 — or before then if there’s bipartisan consensus around a specific proposal.
“On the one hand, it’s kind of a non-agreement. It just gets the government back up,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.
But, Binder said, Democrats did get a little bit of leverage and the promise of an up-or-down Senate vote on legislation to protect the “DREAMers,” young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. That’s nothing to sneeze at, she said, given Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House — and that President Trump was elected on a hardline platform of curbing immigration.
Supporters of Monday’s deal said it was much more significant — an opening for lawmakers to come out of their partisan bunkers and work cooperatively on immigration and a thicket of difficult spending decisions.
Monday’s breakthrough came after a bipartisan group of more than 20 senators met over the weekend and pressed McConnell to commit to a free-flowing debate on legislation granting legal status to the DREAMers and other immigration issues. The Trump administration announced in September that it would revoke temporary legal status and work permits granted to the DREAMers, ending an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“For the first time in five years, we will have a debate on the floor of the Senate on the DREAM Act and immigration,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat. He said that has the potential to be transformative, allowing the Senate function again.
“What I have seen here … in the last few days is something we have not seen in years: constructive, bipartisan conversations and dialogue,” he said. “And not just about this (immigration) issue, which is obviously front and center, but about the future of this institution and what the Senate will be from this point forward.”
Now comes the “real test,” Durbin said, “as to whether we can get this done.”
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Immigration is a deeply polarizing issue, with hardliners in both parties pushing lawmakers into the trenches. Democrats want to give those immigrants who have long been here a path to citizenship; Some Republicans support some type of protections but want to curb legal and illegal immigration as part of any deal, while other GOP lawmakers disparage any legal status as “amnesty.”
There is a growing consensus in the Senate for a compromise bill crafted by Durbin, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and four other lawmakers.
But even if that can clear the Senate, it would face stiff resistance in the GOP-controlled House, where conservative firebrands say they have assurances from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that he will not take up any immigration bill that doesn’t have broad support within the GOP conference. No bill that passes the Senate with Democratic support is likely to meet that test.
Indeed, Ryan promised House conservatives last week that he would work to build support for a hardline Republican-crafted immigration bill that's already been introduced.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who chairs the Republican Study Committee, a 150-plus member caucus of House conservatives, told USA TODAY that McConnell’s immigration promise would have little influence on the House. Walker conceded the hardline immigration bill currently introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and three others, did not have enough GOP votes to pass the House, but he and others are still rounding up support.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, declined to comment on what, if anything, McConnell's agreement would mean for a House debate on an immigration bill.
“We’ll resume our bipartisan, bicameral discussions that were taking place prior to shutdown,” Strong said.
Dan Holler, vice president of communications and government relations at the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America, warns that Republicans need to be careful of what kind of immigration deal they make.
“A sort of sweeping amnesty proposal demoralizes the Republican base,” Holler said. “It’s obviously bad policy but it would also be pretty bad politics for Republicans as well.”
Trump may also push back hard against any immigration compromise that emerges from the Senate. Before lawmakers even finished voting on the spending bill Monday, the president hosted a half-dozen Republican senators — including several immigration hard-liners — at the White House. Trump later invited two red-state Democrats to the White House, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, who both voted against the shutdown last week.
"I’m not holding my breath" for an agreement with Trump on immigration, said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. He said the only way to get the president and the House on board with an immigration bill was to pass it in the Senate with overwhelming support.
"If we pass something with 60 or 70 votes in the Senate, it’ll get the president’s support and then the House will support it," Flake predicted.
Beyond immigration, lawmakers still need to negotiate a broader budget agreement; Monday's vote marked the fourth time Congress has passed a short-term spending bill because they cannot agree on a full-year government spending measure.
"There are still going to be difficult issues, there’s no doubt about that," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who helped convene the bipartisan senators over the weekend. "The difference is the Senate will work its will and that’s the way the Senate is supposed to work."
Asked why anyone should believe that Congress won't be back on a funding cliff and partisan paralysis in early February, Collins noted that the bipartisan group represented a quarter of the 100-member Senate. "That’s a pretty powerful number of people who are able to make a difference with their votes and their voices," she said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said Collins' office had become "our little Switzerland" over the weekend, where lawmakers could talk to each on neutral ground. But he was not quite as lofty as others in his expectations for the coming weeks.
"There’s no guarantees around here,” Manchin said.