WASHINGTON — There was fresh momentum in Congress on Tuesday for efforts to help avoid future government shutdowns, with leaders from both parties voicing support for the idea.
Several proposals have been floated as Congress grapples with the fallout from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and negotiators face yet another funding deadline in two and a half weeks. Another shutdown looms if lawmakers and President Donald Trump fail to reach agreement on border security funding before the current appropriations lapse Feb. 15.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he is open to supporting legislation that would prevent future shutdowns, as long as it has support from both the parties. He called shutdowns "an example of government dysfunction which should be embarrassing to everyone on a bipartisan basis."
“I don't like shutdowns, I don't think they work for anybody, and I hope they will be avoided,” McConnell said. “There's some difference about how to craft that, but I'm certainly open to it."
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a member of the House leadership, responded "yes" when asked if Democratic leaders would support legislation to end shutdowns. And Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said that after they get past the Feb. 15 funding deadline, “then we’d look at other legislation so that we shouldn’t have future shutdowns.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he’s working on his own amendment. “I like the legislation that if we do not fund government, members don’t get paid. I think that ends the whole question,” he said.
The nods of support from leadership have bolstered rank-and-file members who have spearheaded the idea. A dozen freshman Democrats introduced their version of legislation Tuesday, which would block pay for members of Congress and senior executive branch officials if the government shuts down.
"It transfers the responsibility and the pain for a government shutdown that we saw so many of our workers endure to the folks that are actually the decision makers," Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the bill, said.
Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, another co-sponsor, said, "quite frankly, our workers are never to be used as hostages in negotiation by this administration or the next or this Congress or the next. And we must do better."
Other options have been tossed out as well. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has legislation that would allow short-term funding at current spending levels to kick in if there is no agreement on appropriations bills.
But that idea has already been dismissed by the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, saying it would bring "serious unintended consequences."
"While well-intentioned, automatic continuing resolutions would weaken Congress’ power of the purse, shift power to the president, and make it much harder to fund investments important to working families. Discretionary spending should be subject to annual review by Congress, not indefinite autopilot," Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said.
None of those ideas, however, are likely to be in place for the current stalemate as 17 congressional negotiators, made up of nine Democrats and eight Republicans, are preparing to meet for the first time Wednesday to begin negotiations on border security before the current government funding expires.
House Democratic leaders have said they would be open to new fencing along the southern border, providing an opening for potential compromise with the president's insistence on a border wall.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeffries told reporters Tuesday that Democrats would be open to new fencing “where it makes sense.”
“I don't want to get out ahead of the negotiators who have been appointed to the conference committee, but I think we've consistently said that we do not support a medieval border wall from sea to shining sea,” Jeffries said. “However, we are willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion.”
During the last shutdown, Democrats refused to entertain any new spending for a new physical barrier while Trump was insisting on $5.7 billion for a wall or “steel slats” along the southern border.
House Democrats had been prepared to offer Trump at least $5.7 billion for border security that included no money for new physical structures but could be used to repair existing structures.
Now that the government has reopened, Democrats are signaling slight movement in their position, perhaps putting pressure on the president who said he doesn’t have a high confidence that a deal would be reached. "I personally think it’s less than 50-50," Trump told the Wall Street Journal during the weekend about the prospects of an agreement.
McCarthy said there must be some sort of physical divider along the border.
“If you do not have barriers, you just have an open door for individuals to come across in these wide swaths of areas that are not controllable,” he said. “It could be a barrier, it doesn’t have to be a 'wall.'”
It is looking more likely that the negotiations will center solely on border security and will not include relief for the so-called Dreamers or immigrants in the United States under protected status because of violence in their home countries.
“I don’t expect that to be part of the negotiation,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., of the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status programs. “The objective being as we have discussed over and over again is to secure borders and that’s what I expect to be the status.”
The president seemed to agree with that, telling the WSJ that DACA is “a separate subject to be taken up at a separate time.”