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Shutting Down the Shutdown? Notes on Day 1 of the 116th Congress

Today wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Two years ago, Republicans were celebrating the return of unified control over the federal government and the seeming restoration of “the permanent Republican majority”. One year ago, some Democrats and Republicans in Congress were talking about the possibility of a bipartisan immigration reform bill becoming reality. And just one month ago, it didn’t seem like Republicans would allow another government shutdown to happen under their watch.

And yet, here we are. Democrats now have the House majority, President Donald Trump is doing his darndest to kill any possibility of any kind of comprehensive immigration reform, and Democrats are spending the first day of the 116th Congress on the ultimate battle of wills against the White House to determine who gets to end the Republican-initiated shutdown on whose terms.

Where does the Senate fit into this? Do Nevada’s Democratic Senators still matter?

At 12:00 PM Eastern (9:00 AM our time), the 116th Congress opened for business. Though Republicans entered the Senate with a slightly larger majority than the one they left behind last year, that was no thanks to Nevada, as we’re now sending two Democratic women to “the world’s greatest deliberative body”: Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Jacky Rosen (D).

Though Cortez Masto and Rosen serve in the minority, they’re anything but powerless. Rather, due to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) insistence on preserving the 60 vote supermajority requirement for cloture on policy bills (including fiscal legislation) and his private whip counts that probably indicate he doesn’t have enough Republican votes to give Trump his border wall funding anyway, McConnell still needs Democratic votes to pass any kind of budget bill to reopen the parts of the federal government that Trump ordered shut down on December 22.

Thus far Cortez Masto, Rosen, and all their Senate Democratic colleagues have been resolute in refusing to approve Trump’s $5.6 billion in border wall funding. So long as they remain firm in their rejection of Trump’s ransom demand, then the action turns to that other house of Congress, the House of Representatives, “The People’s House” where Democrats now call the shots.

Madame Speaker is now in (charge of) the House.

60 may be the most important number in the Senate, but the House decided to keep it 220… As in, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) just regained her gavel with 220 votes. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) got 192 votes, and 21 members voted for someone else or no one at all. Reps. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas), and Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) voted for Pelosi, while Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) voted for McCarthy.

Shortly after winning that vote, Pelosi quoted a past Republican President in signaling what’s to come: “We will make America more American by protecting our patriotic, courageous Dreamers! As President Reagan said in his last speech as President: ‘If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.’”

Despite that bipartisan overture, Republicans didn’t applaud her. Nevertheless, Pelosi now controls the House agenda. As a result, not only is border wall funding dead in the water, but Democrats have the opportunity to give more humane legislation a new lease on life, such as the DREAM Act, restoration of TPS for qualified refugees, expansion of protections for other refugees in need, and new restrictions on the powers Trump has used to develop his deportation regime targeting immigrant communities across the nation.

As cracks begin to appear on the Republican front, Democrats must now begin to figure out their endgame.
Photo by Andrew Davey

But of course, the big question that we’ve been asking on these pages for quite some time must still be asked today: How will Democrats use their new power? Will they use their new power to extract concessions from Republicans that will result in reining in Trump’s deportation regime? And will they use their new power to be more proactive in pursuing legislative solution to keep more immigrant families together?

Earlier today, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) tacitly admitted perhaps the dirtiest of dirty little secrets on Capitol Hill: For all the sturm und drang over “The Wall”, that’s not really what this shutdown shitshow is about. Rather, it’s about whether Congress will finally use its power to exercise more oversight of the executive branch. It’s about whether the immigrant communities who are living in fear will see any relief any time soon. It’s about whether the public servants and larger communities who rely upon a fully functioning federal government (including here in Nevada) for their survival will finally get paid again. And yes, it’s about that pesky 2020 election cycle that’s already beginning to make headlines right on the heels of the 2018 election.

As I’m writing this report, the House is taking a series of votes on government funding bills to end the shutdown. That began with HR 5, which was approved on a 230-197 party-line vote. (Titus, Lee, and Horsford voted in favor, while Amodei voted against.) And though Trump rails against the new Democratic funding package, his latest bizarre publicity stunt of a “press briefing” suggests that even he knows where his shutdown shitshow may ultimately be heading. It’s now up to the newly empowered Democrats to decide how they want to end it, and where they are willing to go from here.

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