Editor’s Note: Nadeam Elshami is executive vice president at Signal Group, a bipartisan government relations and strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. He was chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and a 25-year veteran of Capitol Hill. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
As they begin their retreat on Wednesday, a day before government funding expires, House Democrats are considering their options on the federal budget deal.
Do they give their support, given that there is increased funding for domestic issues like education and veterans affairs – a major victory considering Republicans ordinarily want to cut federal spending? Or, do they oppose it until Speaker of the House Paul Ryan provides a guarantee for an open debate on the state of the Dreamers?
In an unusual and somewhat unprecedented move, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor on Wednesday for more than eight hours to read the stories of several Dreamers facing uncertainty about their futures. In other words, she highlighted how important the issue is to the Democratic Party.
At any other time, House Democrats would have taken a domestic spending victory and moved on. But for some, Congress not addressing the Dreamers for a second time in a funding bill, even one which includes some of their spending priorities, is giving them a pause.
I believe passing this bill – to include domestic spending on issues Democrats care about – and taking a government shutdown off the table will put the focus back squarely on the Dreamers. But it may require Ryan to give the same guarantee that Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave to the Senate Democrats: an open debate on legislation dealing with the Dreamers.
House Republicans are the majority and can pass any bill they desire, but they need House Democrats for an agreement that raises the funding levels on defense and domestic funding. With 238 Republicans in the House, Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows predicted that 90-100 Republicans would oppose the deal with increased budget caps, which would mean that at least 75-80 Democrats are needed to vote for the bill in order to get to the votes to pass it.
House Republicans already passed a partisan funding bill to kick the can down the road for more than a month. House Democrats opposed the GOP efforts because the bill did not address the Dreamers and funded defense for a full year, while only funding domestic priorities for a few weeks.
This was the first step in a choreographed legislative maneuver we have seen many times. Once the bill passed the House, it went to the Senate, which unveiled a bipartisan deal to lift the funding caps on both domestic and defense spending, without addressing the Dreamers. Specifically, the bill would boost military and nondefense spending by $300 billion over the next two years, with $160 billion to the Pentagon, $128 billion to nondefense programs and another $80 billion for disaster relief. The Senate bill is expected to go back to the House later this week.
Which returns us to the issue of whether enough Democrats in the House will vote for the Senate bill.
The dueling FBI memos, presidential tweets and stock market twists and turns have dominated every media platform – as they did during the Republican retreat last week and may again during this week’s Democratic retreat, where Democrats must establish their priorities and messaging for the rest of the year. But if there is a funding fight and a standoff, the news will shift. The media spotlight will shine on the House Democratic minority possibly withholding votes, the House Republican majority possibly unable to get the votes and the President likely tweeting about it all.
The devil is always in the details. Democrats have been pushing for a fair budget number that funds the domestic priorities they deeply care about, from education to housing to health care funding – areas that the White House and Republican-controlled Congress seem not to care as much about.
If the details of a bipartisan agreement give Democrats what they have wanted, then enough Democrats could support the deal and continue to fight for Dreamers at every other legislative opportunity.
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And if the Republican majority in the House cannot pass this bill on its own, then the GOP will have to make the choice to either provide the necessary assurances that the House will debate legislation dealing with Dreamers or allow the government to shut down once again and let the voters decide who is to blame.
This reinforces an important nuance that is lost on many outside of Washington, D.C. – Democrats in Congress are a powerful part of the negotiating process and are able to secure legitimate legislative victories despite not controlling the House, the Senate or White House.
Stay tuned as the minority in the House considers how to use their leverage.