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Beyond the Government Shutdown: What’s Next for Congress?

A temporary deal puts federal employees back to work – and points to a bigger fight yet to come on the Hill

Beyond the Shutdown: What's Next for Congress?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

After a weekend of marathon closed-door negotiations on Capitol Hill to reopen the government, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have apparently reached a deal, with both sides of the political divide claiming victory. In reality, Congress seems to have only agreed to kick the can – in this case, the politically volatile immigration debate – down the road. “It’s like a circus without a tent,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) tells Rolling Stone. “I think most Americans are wondering how some folks up here made it through the birth canal.”

President Trump sat out most of the negotiations, which seems to have given leaders on Capitol Hill some wiggle room. But the president’s signature will be needed on any bipartisan deal for the 700,000 or so recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DACA. “Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who the GOP tried to blame as the conductor of the shutdown, said on the Senate floor over the weekend.

After a late night vote failed in the Senate on Sunday evening, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was finally able to win the trust of many moderate senators in both parties when he promised to allow a full debate on DACA in February. Many lawmakers noted that McConnell toned down his rhetoric between Sunday night and Monday morning, and they say that coupled with his promise to allow floor time for DACA was key to getting over the impasse.

“I thought it was very important this morning that the majority Leader used the term ‘DACA’ and not ‘illegal immigrants’ – that was a change in rhetoric from last night,” Independent Sen. Angus King told reporters ahead of the vote to reopen the government. “To hold out further you wouldn’t get any more and you’d be disrupting the work of the United States government.”

But immigration hardliners, like Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, are saying lawmakers like King are trying to save face with voters and immigration advocates. “I listened to [McConnell] last night, I listened to him this morning, and I didn’t hear anything different,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told a group of about 20 reporters off the Senate floor Monday. “I don’t hear any move in that.”

Tom Cotton

The president has promised far-right wing lawmakers that he won’t support an immigration bill unless it’s supported by the likes of Cotton and his hardline allies on Capitol Hill. Cotton says he doubts the contours of the debate will change in the coming weeks unless Democratic leaders give on some of their demands. “The Democrats have said, ‘The White House won’t give us their position, keeps changing its positions,'” Cotton said. “What they really mean is they don’t like the president’s position and they reject the president’s position. That’s not the way negotiations work though. There has to be some good faith give and take.”

Winning over Cotton and the Tea Party wing of the House Republican conference may prove impossible, but without the government shutdown hanging over the discussion there seems to be more space for negotiations. Some Republicans had voted against the government funding bill because they saw it as the last chance to get a vote on DACA, so they say McConnell’s new commitment helped ease their apprehension. Still, they say the atmosphere at the Capitol remains bitter. “Nobody trusts anybody around here, and most Americans don’t trust any of us,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters on the way to a closed door GOP meeting. “It’s enough for me. I care a lot about immigration. I believe it’s a reasonable compromise.”

If McConnell stands by his commitment to hold a vote on DACA it will represent the first immigration debate in five years, which is why a group of some 30 or so moderates from both parties are claiming the partial government shutdown resulted in a positive outcome. “Over the weekend the whole thing has been to get the Republican leadership to commit that this was urgent and we needed to take it up right away,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine tells Rolling Stone. “You can’t guarantee outcomes in this line of work, because everyone is going to have a vote. But we got a commitment that I feel very, very good about.”

While arguing the shutdown was unnecessary, some moderate Republicans report that over the weekend there was a change in tone in the Senate – at least when the cameras were off. “We are in a much, much different space than we were on Friday,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters. “In terms of how people are talking with one another. In terms of people’s willingness to work together to find some solution here. It is a world apart.”

So now the clock has been reset and it’s already winding down to the new, February 8th deadline. If no broad, bipartisan deal emerges by then the majority leader has promised to put a neutral DACA bill on the Senate floor, which proponents welcome. “We as the Senate are going to be legislating,” Murkowski says. “We’re going to be legislating in a wide open field. Where it’s not necessarily, ‘This is what the president wants,’ it’s going to be what we as lawmakers can build consensus for.”

In This Article: Congress

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