WASHINGTON ― Republicans may hold the House, the Senate and the White House, but when it comes to the upcoming omnibus spending bill, it’s Democrats who look in control.
There are still a number of tricky issues to settle, and there are plenty of ways a deal could blow up, but when Congress returns next week just a few days before an April 28 government funding deadline, the emerging bill seems likely to please Democrats and anger conservatives.
It’s the first real instance where Republicans and President Donald Trump need Democratic votes to enact their agenda ― short of once again blowing up Senate rules ― and that leverage has Democrats blocking many Republican priorities.
In the GOP dream world, Republicans would defund Planned Parenthood, restrict money for so-called sanctuary cities, fund Trump’s border wall, potentially blow up Obamacare, and provide significantly more for defense while starving other domestic programs that Democrats prefer. But it seems Republicans will get hardly any of that, save for a defense boost that lawmakers on both sides essentially consider pro forma at this point. Conservatives inside and outside Congress may soon rightfully ask: How is this deal any different than a bill Republicans would get if Hillary Clinton were president and Democrats controlled Congress?
The difficulty for Republicans is that they need eight votes in the Senate to pass an omnibus spending bill, which will fund the government until October. Needing eight Democratic votes in the Senate is basically akin to needing all Democrats, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will have to sign off on the bill. And if Schumer has to give the deal his blessing, it’s tough for Republicans to get much.
One flashpoint is the border wall. Trump and Republicans want at least some money toward the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but according to aides with knowledge of the negotiations, Democrats aren’t willing to give much ― if anything.
Instead, Democrats are offering money for border security, most of which would have to be offset in some way. Trump may get some funding for a physical wall, but it would hardly be enough to even start construction. It may be just enough that both sides would be able to claim some form of victory ― Democrats on functionally blocking the wall, Republicans on at least getting more for border security, and, maybe Pyrrhically, for a physical barrier.
The other issue where Republicans and Democrats could both say they won is the most obvious negotiating point: funding levels.
Almost every lawmaker concedes they are going to blow through the Budget Control Act spending caps Congress set in 2011. The question is by how much and for what priorities. Republicans would like to add substantial money to defense. But the traditional agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Washington has been that, for every dollar of defense spending above the caps, non-defense priorities get a dollar too.
How that spending breakdown gets divvied up is still under negotiation, but with the bill already tilting toward Democrats, GOP leadership knows they are going to lose conservatives anyway. That means they have to make up the difference with Democrats.
The common paradox on these spending bills is that the more Democrats win on policy, the more they win on spending. If conservatives are going to vote no anyway over objections on issues like Planned Parenthood or the border wall, it’s Democrats who have to carry the bill to passage in the House and Senate. At this point, Republicans ― in the House, at least ― look to be playing for a “majority of the majority,” which has mostly eluded Republicans over the last several years on these large spending deals.
Perhaps the best sign of just where a deal stands is that Democrats told The Huffington Post that negotiations were going well, whereas conservatives sounded hopeless about supporting the measure.
Still, passing an omnibus bill with nearly unanimous Democratic support and just a little help from Republicans could be so unpalatable for Trump that he vetoes the legislation. Aides have pointed out that the White House has mostly stayed out of the negotiations to this point, with the exception of Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney seeming to indicate recently that the administration wanted to cut funding for sanctuary cities. But that demand looks to be more bluster than reality. Aides have also pointed out that, mechanically, it may be difficult to actually cut funds for cities that tend not to deport undocumented immigrants. (No one seems to have a good legislative definition of a sanctuary city.)
The White House understands that failure to fund the government looks far worse for Republicans ― who control every lever of the federal government ― than it does for Democrats. And the last thing the GOP needs amid its inability to pass a health care bill is another reminder that they have difficulty governing. Voters may get a reminder anyway, as the few legislative days before a government shutdown on April 29 could lead Congress to pass a short-term continuing resolution for, say, one week.
Concerns about governing have already led Republicans to back off a fight that Trump raised when he suggested Republicans could try to blow up the Obamacare insurance markets and force Democrats to negotiate by withholding the subsidies that help low-income consumers purchase Obamacare plans.
Trying to dismantle Obamacare through a government funding bill, however ― à la Republicans in 2013 ― puts the GOP in a public relations crisis where they likely take the blame for a shutdown, as well as the collapse of the 2010 health care law. Instead, GOP aides told HuffPost, Republicans would probably fund those so-called cost-sharing reductions and try to tackle health care through their own bill. The money for those CSRs would likely be tied to additional defense money.
The promise of a health care bill in the offing is also helping to tamp down a fight over defunding Planned Parenthood. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said recently he saw a reconciliation health care bill, which is subject to simple majorities in the House and Senate, as the proper place to have that fight over Planned Parenthood.
Republicans still haven’t given up hope that they can accomplish their health care priorities through that sort of bill. Just as they haven’t given up hope on funding a border wall through a supplemental spending bill, just as they haven’t given up on even more defense spending beyond an omnibus in a defense supplemental.
But if they can’t get hardly anything in a must-pass bill now, why would Republicans think they can get more in other bills?
“Senator Schumer will shut down the government before he gives concessions on Planned Parenthood or the border wall, and for Republicans to believe that some future must-pass bill will make Democrats cave is just wishful thinking,” one Republican member told HuffPost.