Congress was struggling late Thursday to approve an ambitious bipartisan budget deal to avert a midnight government shutdown, but the compromise was exposing deep divisions in both parties over immigration, deficit spending and how best to prepare for the upcoming midterm election.
The Senate was set to vote midday Thursday on the two-year package, which adds $300 billion in new federal spending to defense and domestic programs for 2018 and 2019, well beyond previous budget caps.
But voting was delayed amid objections from fiscal conservatives that could push a final vote into Friday. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held up Senate action for much of the day by demanding a vote on an amendment that would force Congress to stick with the 2011 spending caps. Since the bipartisan deal circumvents those caps, the amendment would either tank the deal or force GOP senators to make an uncomfortable vote. Negotiators also worried that if Paul were allowed to offer an amendment, other senators would seek to make their own changes, jeopardizing the deal.
If Senate leaders are unable to resolve the standoff before midnight, it could mean another government shutdown, albeit a brief one. The White House was warning government agencies to prepare just in case.
Under Senate rules, voting on the bill could begin around 1 a.m. Friday, and leaders expected that a coalition of Republicans and Democrats would quickly pass it. That could provide momentum for approval later in the House, where the vote is expected to be close.
“I am confident that no senator on either side of the aisle believes this is a perfect bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ahead of voting. “But I’m also confident this is our best chance to begin rebuilding our military and make progress on issues directly affecting the American people.”
Compromise often brings the parties together in partners-in-arms strategy to accomplish a common goal — in this case, to avoid the cycle of shutdown threats and temporary measures, including one needed Thursday to keep the government running.
But this deal brought opposition from several factions, particularly in the House, where lawmakers often stake out more partisan positions. Conservative Republicans protested deficit spending, and Democrats decried the lack of action to protect young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) urged Democrats to oppose the package, even though she had a hand in crafting it, while allies of Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) all but pleaded with his majority to deliver the votes needed for passage.
Only in the Senate, whose leaders negotiated the deal, did a sense of accomplishment emerge over a bill that would enable Congress to move beyond the fiscal fights to other issues — and the campaign trail — and assert the legislative branch’s ability to function despite President Trump’s often shifting views.
“Oftentimes we can get a lot more done working with one another and let the White House just sit on the sidelines,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The spending package could become a defining moment ahead of November’s midterm election, when control of the House and the narrow balance of power in the Senate are at stake.
Outside groups intensified the pressure, storming offices and jamming phone lines, warning lawmakers their votes would be logged and remembered.
“Anyone who votes for the Senate budget deal is colluding with this president and this administration to deport Dreamers,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading advocate for immigrants. “It is as simple as that.”
Dreamers, young immigrants who fear losing protection from deportation under an Obama-era program that Trump has said he will end, continued to risk arrest across the Capitol complex as they tried to meet with lawmakers, often occupying their offices, to share their stories.
“We’re in @NancyPelosi’s office today to share our stories and make sure all House Dems keep their promise and vote no on any spending deal that does not include #DreamActNow,” tweeted Bruna Bouhid of United We Dream, posting a photo with dozens of other immigration advocates in the Democratic leader’s office.
At the same time, the conservative House Freedom Caucus announced it would reject the package, reasoning that $300 billion in new spending, which breaks caps imposed by an earlier budget deal, “adds to the swamp instead of draining it.”
Annual federal deficits are expected to rise to $800 billion in 2018, levels not seen for several years, and the package also provides for a lifting of the debt limit to avoid a federal default and allow continued borrowing into 2019.
“This is not what the American people sent us here to do,” the Freedom Caucus said in a statement.
Conservative groups in the network sponsored by the influential Koch brothers, whose money is crucial to Republicans in elections, called the spending package — and its extension of specialty tax breaks for racetracks and Hollywood filming — “a betrayal of American taxpayers and a display of the absolute unwillingness of members of Congress to adhere to any sort of responsible budgeting behavior.”
“This proposal is a massive failure,” wrote Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners and others.
But for many lawmakers, the political fatigue of the budget battles — resulting in five temporary spending bills this fiscal year — and the sprinkling of federal dollars across so many vital government functions were enough to bring their votes.
The package would boost both military and domestic spending by nearly $300 billion for two years and provide an additional $90 million in disaster aid for coastal and Western states hit hard by last year’s hurricanes and wildfires, as well as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.
More money will be available to fight the opioid epidemic, fund National Institutes of Health research, staff community health centers and renovate Veterans Affairs hospitals. Roads, bridges and rural broadband would see $20 billion in new infrastructure spending.
The package includes a stopgap measure to keep funding government through March 23, when Congress would need to approve another bill with the new spending priorities.
Conservative Democrats in both the House and Senate have appeared wary of tying themselves to a prolonged standoff over immigration, which is being led by more liberal and progressive elements of the party. The push for protections for Dreamers led to the brief government shutdown last month.
Pelosi continued trying to leverage Democratic votes to push Ryan for a commitment that he would bring immigration forward to debate, as McConnell has promised to do next week in the Senate.
Ryan, who needs Democratic votes to pass the budget deal because many in his own party object to the spending, inched closer to that commitment Thursday. He said immigration would be the “next big priority” in the House.
“To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not,” Ryan said, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump is ending March 5. A court case is allowing it to continue temporarily.
“Please know that we are committed to getting this done.”