All the People Congress Is Leaving Behind for Christmas

With the Republican tax cut passed and a shutdown deadline on Friday, lawmakers left Washington without long-term solutions for CHIP, DACA, or federal spending.

The Capitol dome framed by Christmas lights
Andrew Harnik / AP

Updated on December 21 at 7:26 p.m. ET

Congress may be giving the nation a tax cut for Christmas, but it’s leaving the year-end wish lists of huge groups of constituents unfulfilled.

Lawmakers escaped Washington on Thursday after they passed a temporary spending bill more notable for what it lacked than what it contains. Millions of families won’t get a long-term reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has been overdue for nearly three months. About 800,000 immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children won’t receive the permanent protection from deportation that Democrats and some Republicans promised would come by the end of the year. And insurers won’t see the renewal of payments aimed at tamping down premiums for people who earn too much to qualify for government subsidies.

Instead, Congress kicked all of those issues to next year rather than press policy fights that could have shut down the federal government over the holidays. With a funding deadline looming after midnight on Friday, the House and Senate approved legislation that keeps the government open for another month. The bill also extends funding for CHIP for another six months while the two parties debate how to pay for a longer-term renewal of the program.

“All we are is rationalizing inaction, kicking this can down the road,” bemoaned Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a Democrat.

Congress even failed to approve an additional batch of disaster relief for the states and territories affected by the multitude of natural disasters in the last several months—the hurricanes that battered Florida and Puerto Rico, the floods that swamped Houston, and the wildfires still scorching California. Bowing to pressure from Republicans representatives of Texas and Florida, the House approved an $81 billion appropriations bill in the afternoon, but hours later, the Senate could not muster the votes to pass it and will instead consider the bill in January.

Expectations for a year-end flurry of legislative activity had been much higher. Leaders in both parties and the White House had hoped to strike a bipartisan budget deal that would set spending caps for the next two years. Senator Susan Collins of Maine had demanded passage of two health-care bills to shore up the Affordable Care Act’s insurance market in exchange for her vote to pass the Republican tax bill that did away with the law’s individual mandate. Democrats had promised the Dreamers that they’d use their limited leverage to insist on an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Trump will end in March. Republicans wanted a full year of funding for the Defense Department to pass alongside a temporary extension for the rest of the government. And the Trump administration had pressed Congress for a long-term extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Those demands all fell away as the tax plan hurtled toward passage and the shutdown deadline drew near. Moments after final passage of the tax bill on Wednesday, Collins conceded that Congress would not adopt the proposals she had demanded to restore cost-sharing payments and a reinsurance program for insurers. She and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said they hoped the bills would be taken up next month alongside a longer-term extension of funding for CHIP and community-health centers.

Senate Democrats capitulated, too. They had the votes to stop any bill that lacked protections for young immigrants, but despite Dreamer protests all week in their offices, they are unlikely to force a shutdown over the issue and will push the fight instead to January. In a bid to alleviate the anger among immigration activists, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a bipartisan bill to the floor next month once a deal is struck.

As part of the interim measure, Republicans also dared Democrats to vote against a provision waiving $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare triggered by the GOP tax bill. With the waiver approved, Trump likely will sign the tax overhaul in the coming days rather than wait for the calendar to turn to 2018 so the cuts don’t take effect right away.

To a large extent, it was conservatives in the House who rebelled against plans for what they likened to a legislative Christmas tree—a big year-end bill filled with unpalatable compromises on immigration, health care, and spending. But even the stripped-down legislation proved tough to pass. Democrats in the House withheld their votes in protest over the bill’s lack of protections for Dreamers, forcing Republicans to pass it on their own.

Trump, who earlier this year was rooting for a government shutdown, urged Republicans to support the stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution.

The Senate, meanwhile, was stuck waiting for the House to act. After earlier discussing plans to add health care and other measures to the funding bill, the lure of flights home for Christmas once again diminished the chances for a protracted fight between the chambers. “The Senate stands ready to take up an agreement as soon as one originates in the House,” McConnell said Thursday morning.

By the evening, the votes were done and lawmakers left town for the year—the government still open, but their work largely undone.