Senate sets votes to reopen government

Neither measure appears likely to pass, and the action could leave the month-old shutdown no closer to resolution.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday scheduled a pair of competing votes to reopen the federal government, announcing that he would bring up dueling proposals from President Donald Trump and the Democrats that would amount to the first real action in the Senate since the shutdown began a month ago.

Neither measure looked likely to win the support from 60 senators needed to advance, and instead the votes Thursday threatened to accomplish little more than to provide each side with new ammunition to accuse the other of prolonging the nation's longest government shutdown. The result could be only to prove that some other solution is needed to end the partial shutdown, even as 800,000 federal workers face the loss of a second straight paycheck Friday.

Trump's proposal, which the president announced in a weekend speech from the White House, would open the government through Sept. 30 while providing $5.7 billion for a border wall and giving temporary deportation protections to about 1 million unauthorized immigrants. But it also contains stringent changes to the nation's asylum rules, and Democrats who were already united against funding Trump's wall described these asylum provisions Tuesday as a new poison pill.

The Democrats' plan is a stopgap spending bill that would fund the government through Feb. 8 without providing any new money for the wall. That would let both parties negotiate on border security while the government is reopened, a respite Democrats have been demanding.

But the White House has consistently opposed reopening the government without getting wall money. And most Republicans have fallen in line with that stance, even though the Senate passed nearly identical legislation shortly before the shutdown began. At the time, many believed that Trump would support the proposal, only to see him publicly oppose it the next day.

Thursday's planned votes are a product of an agreement between McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. But even as the leaders announced the deal, they traded barbs in speeches on the Senate floor. McConnell accused Democrats of rejecting a reasonable proposal from Trump because of political opposition to the president, and Schumer argued that Republicans and Trump were operating in bad faith by including new asylum curbs and failing to consult with Democrats.

"On one side of the scale we have all of my Democratic colleagues' declarations that we must reopen the rest of the federal government and get federal workers their paychecks . . . And we have their stated desire to help out a number of individuals with a more certain immigration status," McConnell said. "That's one side of the scale. All that's on the other side is the far left's political animus for the occupant of the White House. It is high time to get serious."

Schumer disputed McConnell's remarks.

"Now the president said his proposal was a reasonable compromise. In fact it is neither reasonable nor a compromise," Schumer said. "There was no serious negotiation with any Democrat about what went into the proposal. That's because the proposal was never intended to pass. It's only a thinly veiled attempt by the president to save face."

The acrimony on display on the Senate floor came as warnings intensified about the shutdown's economic consequences, and federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service struggled to conduct their basic duties.

Some employees who are not getting paid but are supposed to report to work anyway because their duties have been deemed essential chose to stay home. Lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland, with large concentrations of federal workers, issued increasingly desperate calls for the shutdown to be over with - and yet there was still no end in sight.

Hoping to entice some Democrats to support his new proposal, Trump offered a three-year pause in his efforts to scrap rules that shield some immigrants from deportation. The rules are a Democratic priority, as they protect the "dreamers," a group that includes 700,000 young people brought illegally to the United States as children, who won temporary deportation protections under the Obama-era program formally known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But Democrats accused Trump of offering a short-term solution to a problem he himself caused, and the Supreme Court on Tuesday weakened Trump's hand, taking no action to review lower-court rulings that had blocked Trump from ending DACA. If the court sticks to its normal procedures, even accepting the case at a later date would probably mean the justices would not hear arguments until the court's new term starts in October. That would probably keep the program in place until at least next year.

With the court seemingly keeping the program safe for at least a year, Trump's offer to suspend his efforts to end it became less appealing to lawmakers who were already skeptical.

Democratic opposition to Trump's proposal further solidified Tuesday as Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists dug into the Senate legislation and discovered that it contains dramatic new limits on the U.S. asylum program.

The legislation specifies that children younger than 18 from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala could not apply for asylum at the U.S. border and instead would be turned away, because of a new requirement that they apply from their home countries. The law would also set a new cap of 15,000 on the number of children who could qualify each year for the asylum program.

Additionally, the legislation says children could qualify for asylum only if they had a U.S.-based guardian to care for them. Immigration experts said the changes would effectively bar Central American minors arriving at U.S. borders from access to asylum.

"It's an enormous restriction," said Greg Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It pretty much shuts down access to asylum for Central American minors arriving at U.S. borders and will force thousands of children back into life-threatening danger."

A spokesman for McConnell's office directed questions about the proposed asylum changes to the administration. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, House Democrats announced fresh plans to pass legislation this week that would reopen the government while blocking new wall funding, but Trump has repeatedly rejected similar bills, and McConnell has said the Senate won't take them up - leading Republicans, newly consigned to powerlessness in the House minority, to question why they were engaging in the exercise at all.

"Doing the same thing over and over is not likely to get us there," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

The impasse has left key parts of the federal government unfunded for more than a month, including the Treasury, Homeland Security, Interior, Agriculture and Justice departments. It has also threatened important government services, leaving the White House to repeatedly attempt to find ways to keep unfunded parts of the government functioning.

But Trump and his chief negotiating rival, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both promised Tuesday morning that they would not give in.

In a morning post on Twitter, the president accused Democrats of playing "political games," exclaimed "No Cave!" and argued that construction of a wall along the Mexican border would lead to substantially lower crime rates and fewer drugs coming into the United States.

"Without a Wall our Country can never have Border or National Security," Trump wrote.

In response, Pelosi accused Trump and McConnell of "holding Americans hostage" by not acting on the House bills.

In a statement later in the day, she added: "Senate Republicans need to re-open government, not continue their complicity in the Trump Shutdown with a vote for the President's unacceptable border and immigration schemes that only increase the chaos and suffering at the border."

The Senate bill incorporates a few elements aimed at winning Democratic support, including some new humanitarian aid, $12.7 billion in hurricane and wildfire disaster relief, and the three-year protections for about 700,000 dreamers, as well as 300,000 immigrants who came to the United States following natural disasters or other calamities in their home countries and who won "temporary protected status," a designation Trump is also moving to phase out.

In announcing his proposal in the White House speech Saturday, Trump touted it as a "common-sense compromise both parties should embrace."

"Our plan includes critical measures to protect migrant children from exploitation and abuse," Trump said, in a mention of the new asylum provisions. "This includes a new system to allow Central American minors to apply for asylum in their home countries, and reform to promote family reunification for unaccompanied children, thousands of whom wind up on our border doorstep."

But the changes cracking down on asylum seekers and other pieces of the immigration system drew angry and widespread condemnation from immigration activists.

Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that works with unaccompanied immigrant youths, said that under the proposed changes, "kids will lose their lives, plain and simple."

The legislation would also double fees for young immigrants to apply for protection under DACA and create new income requirements to qualify, in effect preventing very poor immigrants from being able to apply, according to United We Dream, a group that supports dreamers.

And it would increase by 20 percent the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's budget for detention and enforcement, said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. This money could fund an additional 2,000 new ICE officers and 750 new border agents.

But the legislation also faces opposition from some on the right, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who has described it as "amnesty."

And some immigration restrictionists said they would like to see the legislation go even farther. For example, the proposal would allow the administration to tighten the process that allows asylum seekers to claim they have a "credible fear" of persecution in their home countries, said Chris Chmielenski, a spokesman for NumbersUSA, an advocacy firm that favors tighter immigration rules.

But NumbersUSA wants those changes to be made permanent in the Senate GOP proposal, along with changes that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to deport unaccompanied minors not from Canada or Mexico back to their home countries.

"It doesn't go far enough," Chmielenski said.

This article was written by Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Robert Barnes contributed to this report.