Shutdown politics return to the Senate

Shutdown politics return to the Senate
© Greg Nash

Senators are firing the opening salvos in a new fight over funding the government.

With President Trump releasing his first budget request Thursday, both parties are preemptively pointing fingers over who would be responsible if Congress misses a deadline in April to avoid a government shutdown. 

Republicans say it’s up to Democrats to play ball, while Democrats counter that Republicans have to be willing to reject some of Trump's proposals. 

“If they put those poison pill amendments in and try to shove them down the American people's throats, of course they might be responsible for shutting the government down,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSenate seen as starting point for Trump’s infrastructure plan Dems wait for GOP olive branch after ObamaCare debacle How Obama's White House weaponized media against Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a leadership press conference. 

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Schumer said a letter he and other top Democrats sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe truth is the latest casualty of today’s brand of politics McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill Senate seen as starting point for Trump’s infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) should serve as a “guidepost” for how Republicans can work with them to avoid a shutdown.

Democrats outlined in the letter, which was also sent to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad CochranThad CochranOvernight Defense: FBI chief confirms Trump campaign, Russia probe | Senators push for Afghan visas | Problems persist at veterans' suicide hotline Senators ask to include visas for Afghans in spending bill Shutdown politics return to the Senate MORE (R-Miss.), their demands for any spending bill: that Republicans avoid “poison pills” that would stir ire from Democrats and that any increases in defense spending be matched with a boost in nondefense spending.

“If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy,” they wrote in the letter. 

Trump’s budget outline — which marks the formal start of budget negotiations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — drew swift opposition from Democrats, who warned Republicans against funding the president’s border wall or cutting off federal dollars for Planned Parenthood. 

“I will oppose efforts to fulfill empty campaign promises at the expense of proven programs that are vital to local law enforcement and national security,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinOvernight Regulation: Trump repeals 'blacklisting' rule Dems delay Senate panel vote on Supreme Court nominee Dems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges MORE (D-Calif.) said of Trump’s push to fund the border wall.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinRepublicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown No. 2 Senate Democrat opposes Trump's Supreme Court pick The Hill’s Whip List: 32 Dems are against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee MORE (Ill.) — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — added separately that “it’s time for Republicans to remember that Congress is an independent branch of the federal government that won’t be bullied into these billion dollar boondoggles.”

Trump’s budget outline calls for deep cuts at department and agencies that would eliminate entire programs and slash the size of the federal workforce, while boosting defense spending.

He also sent a supplemental request for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year, which runs through the end of September. That proposal includes an extra $33 billion for the Pentagon, building a border wall and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Though Democrats are in the Senate minority, they can block any spending bill they object to by keeping it from getting 60 votes.

In 2015 and 2016 — the first two years that Republicans had controlled the Senate in nearly a decade — Democrats halted progress on spending bills more than a dozen times.

The partisan posturing comes as senators are under a time crunch to fund the government. 

Debates over repealing and replacing ObamaCare and Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination are expected to dominate much of the Senate’s work heading into early April. Then, senators are expected to be out of town for two weeks and return to Washington five days before the funding deadline.

Republicans are tamping down speculation of a potential government shutdown next month, noting Democrats howled for years after the 2013 shutdown. 

“I'm amused by the Democrats apparently warming up to the idea that threatening to shut down the government is a good idea. It seems to me everybody's got kind of memory loss on the other side,” McConnell told reporters.

The government shut down for 16 days in 2013 after conservatives demanded that the spending bill cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood and stop the implementation of ObamaCare. 

McConnell stressed that Democrats would be part of the negotiations over the funding bill.

“They will have an opportunity to ball it up, once again,” he said. “I've been hoping the fever's going to break here at some point and we'll get into an operational mode. ... We haven't seen much of that so far.”

McConnell has repeatedly accused Democrats of suffering from a "fever" since the 2016 elections, which he argues is leading them to oppose almost anything partly in an attempt to satisfy their liberal base. 

Republicans will likely get help pressuring Democrats to come to the negotiating table. After top Democrats sent their letter to McConnell, The Washington Examiner floated nicknaming the Senate’s top Democrat “Shutdown Schumer.”  

But McConnell will also have to be on guard against any rebellion within his own caucus.

GOP Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill MORE (S.C.) and John McCainJohn McCainMcCain responds to North Korean criticism to calling Kim Jong-un 'crazy fat kid' Overnight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement MORE (Ariz.) are expected to push for more defense spending in the funding bill, which would likely face opposition from Democrats.

The Senate will also likely reject at least part of Trump's proposed 28 percent cut to the State Department budget. 

McConnell previously said a deep cut to State Department funding likely wouldn’t pass the chamber. Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE (R-Fla.) on Thursday said he opposes the cuts. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerWith GOP’s healthcare bill on ice, Dems go on offense Red-state Dems in Supreme Court pressure cooker This week: House GOP faces make-or-break moment on ObamaCare MORE (R-Nev.) partnered with freshman Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) to send a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, opposing a provision in Trump’s budget that would restart licensing to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. 

Heller is considered one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2018, with Republicans facing an otherwise favorable Senate map. 

Democrats who are up for reelection in 2018 will likely face a mountain of pressure to buck their party and support legislation to avert a shutdown, even if it includes provisions opposed by leadership. 

Yet Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) predicted that some GOP senators could ultimately become "allies" in the fight because the budget will generate a backlash in states that Trump won in the election. 

"If you look at the areas where Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFederal judge extends order blocking Trump's revised travel ban Texas Dem targets Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 Budowsky: Putin’s KGB super PAC MORE did especially well, they get especially hard hit by this budget. Rural areas get badly hurt in this budget,” said Van Hollen, who is also the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

Democrats are defending 25 seats in 2018, with both parties keeping a close watch on the 10 states won by Trump that have a Democratic senator up for reelection. 

Van Hollen specifically pointed to West Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSenate Dems to Trump: Work with us on ObamaCare GOP senator to Dems: 'What's all the whining about' on Supreme Court? Senate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight MORE is considered a vulnerable incumbent next year.

"I think this is going to be a wake up call to a lot of people who supported Donald Trump,” he said. “That his budget is betraying them and the commitments he made."