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February 22, 2018

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Senate passes budget bill to raise spending and reopen government

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Senate TV via AP

In this image from video from Senate Television, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks on the floor of the Senate Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The Senate early Friday easily approved a far-reaching budget deal that would reopen the federal government and boost spending by hundreds of billions of dollars but only after enduring a one-man blockade by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had held up the vote and forced the government to close.

The House was expected to vote before daybreak, although the outcome in that chamber was less certain. If the House approves the deal, the government will reopen before the workday begins.

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

“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Paul said Thursday night. “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?'”

The shutdown came on the heels of a three-day closure brought about by Senate Democrats last month. As midnight approached, Paul did not relent, bemoaning from the Senate floor what he saw as out-of-control government spending and repeatedly rebuffing attempts by his fellow senators to move ahead with a vote.

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

Senate leaders were left helpless.

“I think it’s irresponsible,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, lamenting what he described as “the act of a single senator who just is trying to make a point but doesn’t really care too much about who he inconveniences.”

Paul’s ideological opponents were not buying his fiscal rectitude either. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, posted on Twitter: “Rand Paul voted for a tax bill that blew a $1.5 trillion hole in the budget. Now he is shutting the government down for three hours because of the debt. The chance to demonstrate fiscal discipline was on the tax vote. Delaying a vote isn’t a profile in courage, it’s a cleanup.”

Around 1:45 a.m., the Senate finally passed the measure, 71-28.

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 unauthorized immigrants, created new 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 focus on that politically volatile subject.

The text of the deal, stretching more than 600 pages, was released late Wednesday, 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 by about $300 billion in total. It would also lift the federal debt limit until March 2019 and include 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, which was passed to end the past shutdown, expired 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. Even with a technical lapse in government funding, the effect of the shutdown could be minimal if lawmakers approve the deal before the workday Friday.

As the midnight deadline approached, Senate leaders from both parties nudged Paul to stop holding up the vote. And his colleagues had little to do but wait.

“It’s just further example of the dysfunction of this place,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., offered a succinct account of his evening: “Living the dream.”

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 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 the Senate majority leader, Mitch 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 prolonging the shutdown — 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.