For all the alarms that went off when the federal government briefly shut down last month, Congress is moving toward the February 8 expiration of the stopgap spending bill enacted to end that shutdown with the speed and precision of a bathtub full of molasses. The practical deadline could actually be tomorrow, since Democrats are due to cut out Wednesday for a party retreat (Republicans held theirs last week). Yes, murky negotiations continue. But it’s hard to see how any real progress has been made in the last couple of weeks. And so the next stopgap spending bill — the fifth since the fiscal year began last October 1 — could be the last as decisions that simply cannot be put off forever pile up.
For all the complexity of reaching a deal that addresses the outstanding issues, the moving pieces are quite clear. House Democrats want relief for Dreamers without big immigration policy concessions to Trump. House conservatives want a big increase in defense spending (which requires again suspending the 2011 budget caps), if possible without corresponding nondefense spending increases (indeed, they’d love to get nondefense spending cuts). Senate Democrats really want to avoid another government shutdown, making them likely supporters of another stopgap bill. Senate Republicans are probably in the same boat.
House Democrats and conservative diehards don’t have the power to block a stopgap spending bill in the House unless they join forces, but of course they cannot agree on a bill that would have a prayer in the Senate. So the obvious play for Paul Ryan is to somehow get enough conservatives onboard to get a status quo bill out of the chamber, without upsetting the Senate Democrats who can block a bill.
If House conservatives do muster enough votes to block a bill with demands that cannot be sustained in the Senate, then we could be looking at another shutdown, or at a minimum, a show of force that the House Freedom Caucus will then holster for future use.
But this is it; the temporary measures just aren’t going to be available going forward. On March 5 the temporary protection of Dreamers ends. At some point in March a debt increase will become necessary, and so important that it will blot out the sky as the financial sector panics. If there’s going to be an omnibus appropriations bill for the rest of the fiscal year, a prerequisite for any kind of public-sector stability, it cannot be put off much longer, and it cannot be assembled without top-line budget agreements on defense and nondefense spending levels.
Theoretically Paul Ryan could get a stopgap spending bill, and for that matter an eventual spending agreement, through the House and over to a grateful Senate by dealing in House Democrats, giving them just enough in concessions to get just enough votes to justify telling Mark Meadows and his caucus to go pound sand. It’s what John Boehner did on more than one occasion. But Boehner was eventually forced by restive conservatives to retire, and Ryan seems to believe he holds his gavel at the sufferance of the same people. And unlike Boehner, he and Mitch McConnell must additionally feel a knife approaching their backs from the White House. So no strategy for getting Congress out of its current morass will be easy.