In a normal congressional session, passing a massive tax overhaul would take up a week's worth of news oxygen and then some. We're not in a normal congressional session, however, and this won't be a normal week: The federal government will shut down in five days unless Congress manages to reach a deal to pass a spending bill. The House had put together a budget measure that would fund the government through Jan. 19 and military activities through September 2018, but Democrats in the Senate are expected to block it. And it'll be a rush to drag the bill across the finish line, as Republicans in Congress set a goal of passing the tax bill by Wednesday morning at the latest.
The last time the government actually shut down was October 2013, but there have been threats of another shutdown since then. Now, Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, have put themselves in a difficult situation. With their self-imposed tax bill deadline set essentially at midweek, their focus will be on that until it passes both chambers and ends up on President Trump's desk. On top of that, the House's spending bill is totally unacceptable to Democrats, who had hoped to see health insurance subsidies, a measure to address the status of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and more funds to take on the opioid crisis in the bill.
Instead, House Republicans put more money towards military funding and left out many of the Democrats' demands. “We urge you to keep your commitment to the bipartisan budget negotiations and forego any plans to consider partisan legislation,” a group of Democratic senators wrote early last week, according to the Washington Post:
“There is a better path — let the bipartisan negotiation continue in good faith so that Democrats and Republicans can produce a budget agreement that fully funds our homeland security, health care, and Veterans’ needs.”
Republicans have already indicated that they would blame any delay on Senate Democrats. Of course, there's no guarantee that move would be successful. “We have to get defense done, and I find it hard to believe that the Democrats would play politics with that,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) told the Post. “I would hope that the Democrats understand that they are playing with fire.”
As things stand right now, lawmakers have until Friday to work out their differences. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he's optimistic that a spending bill will pass, although he noted a shutdown was still possible. "I can’t rule it out, but I can't imagine it occurring," Mnuchin told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "I just can't imagine sending government workers home for Christmas. I hope Congress gets this done." White House legislative director Marc Short also expressed high hopes that Congress would at a minimum pass a short term spending bill. In that situation, lawmakers would avoid a government shutdown before Christmas — but face one down yet again in early January, when they'd actually have to negotiate.
Republicans need the support of eight Democrats in order to avoid a filibuster in the Senate, and Democrats almost certainly will hold out for Republicans to match their proposed military budget increases with increases in funding for other areas. If they end up agreeing on a short term spending bill, it would be the second time this month that lawmakers punted the tough negotiations. Discussions over this new budget bill haven't gone smoothly so far, with Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell relying on different strategies and making conflicting promises to their representative caucuses.
This is one of the most ineffective Congresses ever, so perhaps lawmaker's inability to agree to keep the lights on in government buildings shouldn't come as a surprise. Given the potentially disastrous political consequences of a shutdown right before the holidays, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are likely to do whatever it takes to keep the lights on.