Washington, D.C.

Senator’s protest blocks vote to avert shutdown

Rand Paul: 'The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot'
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) talks before a news conference about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) talks before a news conference about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders, facing an implacable foe in Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, adjourned the chamber until just after midnight, conceding they could not prevent at least a short-term government shutdown, which would begin Friday morning.

Senators were still expected to vote in favor of a far-reaching budget deal in a series of votes that would begin around 1 a.m. The House was to follow before daybreak, although the outcome in that chamber was less certain. If the House approves the deal, the government will have reopened before the workday begins.

But Paul, a Republican, will have made his point. Angered at the huge spending increases at the center of the budget deal, the senator delayed passage for hours with a demand to vote on an amendment that would keep in place strict caps on spending that the budget agreement would raise.

“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Paul said. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’”

He delivered floor speech after floor speech in which he bemoaned what he saw as out-of-control government spending.

“I think the country’s worth a debate until 3 in the morning, frankly,” he said.

Before Paul waged his assault on the budget deal, trouble was already brewing in the House, where angry opposition from the Republicans’ most ardent conservative members, coupled with Democratic dissenters dismayed that the deal did nothing for young immigrants in the country illegally, was creating fresh tension as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, told a closed-door meeting of House Democrats that she would oppose the deal and said Democrats would have leverage if they held together to demand a debate on immigration legislation. But she suggested she would not stand in the way of lawmakers who wanted to vote their conscience.

The struggle to push the bill through the House highlighted the divisions within the Democratic caucus over how hard to push on the issue of immigration as Congress prepares to turn its focus to that politically volatile subject.

The text of the deal, stretching more than 600 pages, was released late Wednesday night, revealing provisions large and small that would go far beyond the basic budget numbers. The accord would raise strict spending caps on domestic and military spending in this fiscal year and the next one by about $300 billion in total. It would also lift the federal debt limit until March 2019 and includes almost $90 billion in disaster relief in response to last year’s hurricanes and wildfires.

Critically, it would also keep the government funded for another six weeks, giving lawmakers time to put together a long-term spending bill that would stretch through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The previous temporary funding measure was set to expire at midnight Thursday.

The deal had been expected to sail through the Senate, and the House had planned to vote on it later Thursday, until Paul took his stand.

The White House Office of Management and Budget instructed federal agencies to prepare for a possible lapse in funding, a spokeswoman said Thursday night. The shutdown would be the second of the year, coming after a three-day closure last month when the vast majority of Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including Paul, blocked a bill that would have kept the government open.

This time around, Senate leaders from both parties nudged Paul to stop holding up the vote.

“It’s his right, of course, to vote against the bill, but I would argue that it’s time to vote,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader.

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, echoed the sentiment. “We’re in risky territory here,” Schumer warned.

Among the Democratic ranks in the House, the objections were also strenuous, but for reasons very different from Paul’s.

With the monthslong budget impasse appearing to be on the cusp of a resolution, lawmakers were girding for a fight over the fate of young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, known as Dreamers, as well as President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico and other possible immigration policy changes.

The uncertain outlook for immigration legislation, and the disagreements on the best strategy to move forward, was starkly apparent as Pelosi commanded the House floor for more than eight hours on Wednesday in an effort to help the young immigrants. She said she would oppose the budget deal unless Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin offered a commitment to hold a vote on legislation in the House that would address the fate of the Dreamers.

On Thursday, Pelosi herself displayed the conflicting pressures on Democrats. She simultaneously hailed the budget deal while proclaiming she would vote against it. In a letter to colleagues, she explained her opposition to the deal but also nodded to its virtues and held back from pressuring other Democrats to vote against it.

“I’m pleased with the product,” she told reporters. “I’m not pleased with the process.”

Ryan, for his part, stressed his desire to address the fate of the young immigrants. But he did not offer the kind of open-ended commitment that might assuage Pelosi. Instead, he signaled that whatever bill the House considers would be one that Trump supports.

“To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not,” he told reporters. “We will bring a solution to the floor, one that the president will sign.”

The fate of the Dreamers has been in question since Trump moved in September to end the Obama-era program that shields them from deportation, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The president gave Congress six months to come up with a solution to resolve their fate.

In recent months, Democrats have tried to make use of the leverage they have in fiscal negotiations, and the issue of immigration played a central role in last month’s shutdown. But Democrats have struggled to determine how hard they should push.

In last month’s closure, most Senate Democrats voted to block a bill that would have kept the government open, only to retreat a few days later and agree to end the closure after McConnell promised a Senate debate on immigration.

This time, House Democrats were clearly split in their calculations about the best way to exert influence over immigration.

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., demanded that Pelosi use her muscle to “stop the Democrats from folding.”

“Anyone who votes for the Senate budget deal is colluding with this president and this administration to deport Dreamers,” he said. “It is as simple as that.”

Democrats also ran the risk of angering liberal activists who want to see them take a stand. Ben Wikler, the Washington director for MoveOn.org, said that House Democrats would be making a strategic mistake by voting for the budget deal.

“If you’re looking at a boulder and you have a choice between a lever or your bare hands, you should use the lever,” he said.

But Democrats secured important victories in the budget pact, obtaining big increases in funding for domestic programs. Voting against those wins to take a stand on DACA — and possibly shutting down the government — carried its own political risks.

Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, noted that the budget deal “meets nearly every one of our priorities.”

“If Democrats cannot support this kind of compromise, Congress will never function,” he said.

The spotlight was on House Democrats in part because it became apparent that Republican leaders most likely lacked the votes to push the budget deal through the House with only votes from their own party.

A sizable number of House Republicans are rebelling against the deal because of its huge increase in spending. The conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has roughly three dozen members, formally opposed the deal.

“It was pretty much a smorgasbord of spending and policy that got added to this,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus. “Normally, people who eat at smorgasbords all the time are not the healthiest.”

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