Democrats voted to reopen the government in exchange for six years of authorization for CHIP, along with a promise of Mitch McConnell to give a clean debate and vote on a DACA fix. There was one bitter pill to swallow—another $31 billion in tax cuts that further undermine the Affordable Care Act. But all Democrats fundamentally conceded was three more weeks on a CR.
So what lies ahead? One scenario is déjà vu all over again; no action in the House even if there is a vote on a bill in the Senate, leading to another fandango over an immigration fix, more intervention by White House aides Stephen Miller and John Kelly, a veto power exercised by nativist lawmakers like Tim Cotton, and another shutdown over another short-term CR. But it might not be one forced only by Democrats; it is not at all clear how many more short-term CRs Freedom Caucus members or conservative Republican senators will tolerate.
A second scenario is that no fix for DACA is enacted by February 8, and Republicans instead propose a new extended CR lasting until the end of the fiscal year—one with enough sweeteners in the form of budget and tax cuts to entice enough Republicans in the House and Senate to win majorities, but not enough to overcome the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, leading to a more prolonged standoff and shutdown. A variation would be two CRs—the first one separating out defense spending to offer a huge increase, followed by the non-defense items with at least the 15 percent cuts required by sequestration. If Democrats ultimately folded, the repercussions for their party would be far stronger and more devastating.
There is a third scenario, more favorable to Schumer and his colleagues. There could be a DACA deal and a broader immigration package—not far removed from the one Senators Durbin, Graham, Flake and others put together that was blown up by Kelly and Miller after the infamous White House meeting—that gets a debate in the Senate and draws broad bipartisan support, garnering well over 60 votes. With the Dreamer program about to end, the pressure on Paul Ryan to hold a vote would be ramped up—and Democrats would have more traction and legitimacy to use another shutdown to force that vote. Ryan might hold out, but the dynamic would be quite different from the one we have seen so far.
Whichever of these scenarios, or some variation thereof, plays out, the deeper conflicts over spending priorities would not be resolved by them. At some point, immigration notwithstanding, it is more likely that the focus will shift to the House, and the onus will be on Paul Ryan to find a way to get a spending bill through by biting the bullet and supplanting lost Freedom Caucus members with Democrats—a dilemma very familiar to his happily retired predecessor John Boehner. And we cannot ignore the other looming and related issue—the debt ceiling. A shutdown, even for a few days, has major costs to governance, federal employees and many other Americans. A debt ceiling breach would be much, much worse.
But even if the spending bills pass, and the debt ceiling is increased, that will simply reset the table for a replay of these same conflicts and fissures for the next fiscal year, which is rapidly approaching.