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Congress Passes Three-Week Spending Bill to End Shutdown

23 Jan

By Kristina Peterson, Janet Hook and Natalie Andrews, The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Congress approved a measure Monday to fund the government for about three weeks and halt a three-day shutdown, after Senate Democrats accepted GOP leaders’ assurance that they would bring an immigration bill to the floor in the coming weeks.

The House, as expected, then followed suit and approved the bill, 266-150. President Donald Trump signed the bill Monday night, effectively ending the shutdown.

The agreement will keep the federal government running through Feb. 8, but did little to resolve the underlying policy fights over immigration and government-spending levels and doesn’t preclude a similar shutdown next month.

The deal also opened a rift in the Democratic Party between a left flank that wanted to hold out now for an agreement on the young immigrants known as Dreamers and a more centrist group eager to reopen the government and work out a bipartisan compromise.

The Senate easily mustered the support needed to cross a 60-vote threshold on a parliamentary move to advance the legislation, and then later passed the funding bill itself. Both tallies were 81-18, with two Republicans joining 15 Democrats and one independent in opposing the measures.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Monday morning that if a bill addressing the fate of the young immigrants and border security hasn’t passed by Feb. 8, he intended to bring an immigration bill to the floor then.

“This immigration debate will have a level playing field at the outset, and an amendment process that is fair to all sides,” Mr. McConnell said.

In accepting these terms and agreeing to support the short-term spending bill, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said his agreement with Mr. McConnell would provide “a real pathway to get a bill on the floor.”

Still, Mr. Schumer said, the agreement wouldn’t likely please those Democrats who had sought to secure legal protections for the young immigrants as part of any deal to reopen the government. “While this procedure will not satisfy everyone on both sides, it is a way forward,” he said.

Mr. Trump kept a low profile as the shutdown fight intensified over the weekend and drew to an end Monday, after his efforts to reach a deal with Mr. Schumer on Friday collapsed. But the White House defended Mr. Trump against Mr. Schumer’s assertions that dealing with Mr. Trump was like “negotiating with Jell-O” and that the “great deal-making president sat on the sidelines” for much of the discussions.

“What the president did clearly worked,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

In a written statement, Mr. Trump said his administration will work toward solving “very unfair illegal immigration” and promised a deal on immigration only if it is good for the country.

In a fundraising email sent under his name with the subject line “Democrats CAVED,” the GOP president struck a more confrontational tone. The Democratic lawmakers the email blamed for the shutdown should be fired in the November elections, he wrote.

Lawmakers said Monday that bipartisan negotiations over immigration would soon resume. Several groups of legislators and White House officials have been meeting to hammer out a deal combining protections for the young immigrants with border security and new limits on family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery that admits immigrants from underrepresented countries.

Still, Democrats faced a swift backlash from their party’s most liberal wing that they had capitulated under pressure without extracting any significant policy concessions from the GOP. In the wake of Mr. Trump’s 2016 upset win, progressive activists have been pushing the Democratic Party to develop a clearer, more liberal message and to take an uncompromising approach to Mr. Trump and the Republicans.

Criticism was particularly harsh from progressive immigration advocates.

“Last week, I was moved to tears of joy when Democrats stood up and fought for progressive values and for Dreamers,’’ said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrants-rights group. “Today, I am moved to tears of disappointment and anger that Democrats blinked.”

In one measure of the pressure from the party’s liberal base, many of the no votes Monday on advancing the legislation to reopen the government came from Democrats thought to harbor 2020 presidential ambitions. They include Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

Another no vote came from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran a strong but unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Democrats had hoped to use their leverage on spending bills, which need 60 votes to pass the Senate, to extract legal protections for immigrants. In September, Mr. Trump had ended a program advanced by his Democratic predecessor that shielded the Dreamers from deportation, but Mr. Trump gave Congress until March 5 to pass a replacement. Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate.

After Mr. Trump rejected a bipartisan immigration proposal, Democrats dug in Friday to block a short-term spending bill until that and other issues were resolved. Congressional leaders are also working on a two-year budget deal to boost both military and domestic spending. They also hope to fund disaster aid and community-health programs.

The spending bill would reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, a priority for both parties.

Republicans hammered Democrats for yoking the government funding to what they called “illegal immigration,” ratcheting up pressure on Democrats to reconsider their position. Meanwhile, the bipartisan group of senators convened repeatedly over the last few days to try to chart a path out of the gridlock. The group leaned on Mr. McConnell to provide a firm commitment to bring up an immigration bill to the Senate floor, regardless of whether it had Mr. Trump’s backing, by early February.

By Sunday night, Mr. McConnell outlined his intention to bring forward immigration legislation, though he stopped well short of any ironclad guarantee. After a private meeting Monday morning, Democrats decided they would accept his offer.

“Today, Republican leadership has finally agreed to bring bipartisan legislation to protect Dreamers to the floor in the next three weeks, and both parties—as well as the American public—will hold them to it,” said the two Democratic senators from Virginia, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, in a joint statement.

Both had voted against the spending bill on Friday night, but switched to support it on Monday.

However, many Democrats remained wary of Mr. McConnell’s comments, considering pledges he made last year about other legislation to GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona that have yet to materialize.

“I’m very concerned about that,” Mr. Merkley said. “When a person repeatedly breaks their promises, then I think anyone who puts too much faith in yet another promise is being foolish.”

Even if the Senate can pass a bipartisan bill by next month on immigration, it is likely to face hurdles in the House unless Mr. Trump has endorsed it.

“It’s got to be a bill that’s very strongly supported by Republicans too or it’s just a wasted effort because the House is never going to pass it,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.). A sweeping immigration overhaul passed the Senate in 2013, but collapsed in the face of conservative opposition in the House.

Republicans said Democrats had overplayed their hand by shutting the government down, particularly since the GOP already has an incentive to pass legislation protecting the young immigrants, who enjoy broad public sympathy, before the program ends in March.

“I believe that the Democrats overgamed this,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said. “I think they gambled and didn’t win.”