The last major responsibility of the current Congress is to approve a budget to keep federal offices open, and prevent an interruption in government services and programs. Two controversial issues are complicating the process.
President Trump may veto any spending bill that does not include funding for the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that he promised his supporters. He has previously threatened to shut down the government unless lawmakers provide the money.
Democrats also have a demand that could derail budget negotiations, according to Politico. The news site reported that party leaders have called for language in the bill to protect Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election meddling, Trump campaign collusion and presidential obstruction of justice.
Trump's appointment of Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general, to replace the recently fired Jeff Sessions, has raised fears that the probe could be in jeopardy. Whitaker, whom many have described as a Trump “loyalist,” has publicly criticizing Mueller and defended the president.
As the nation's top law-enforcement officer, Whitaker could end the investigation. Such a move might spark a constitutional crisis similar to the fallout from Richard Nixon's firing of his attorney general. The former president also dismissed the assistant AG, and ordered the solicitor general to fire a special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate scandal. The incident, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” led to Nixon resigning to avoid facing impeachment.
Democrats initially sought to craft separate legislation to protect Mueller, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to allow such a bill to advance. That left little choice but to add the provision to the budget package, which must pass by Dec. 7 to avoid a government shutdown.
The border wall plan is part of Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration, a highly contentious matter that has created deep divides between the two parties. Senate Republicans want the budget to include $5 billion for border security. The outgoing GOP majority in the House is seeking up to $25 billion.
Democratic leaders are willing to add $1.6 billion for border protection, which could include some money for fencing but not for a wall along the length of the international boundary. “We think that's more than adequate for reasonable investment in border security,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “At this point, (Trump) can't spend it. He can't spend it responsibly. We know it's a lead in to the 2020 cycle.”
Democrats are insisting upon immigration policy reforms, like maintaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows those who came to the United States as minors to remain in the country under certain conditions.
Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for the budget stalemate. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked whether Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is “going to shut down the government over border security.” He added: “Strikes me as a bad idea.” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont responded: “The president, the House and the Senate are all controlled by Republicans. If they want a shutdown, they'll have a shutdown.”
Politico noted that one option is to approve a short-term budget measure, which would probably feature no funding for the wall, cuts in programs that Democrats advocate, and no Mueller probe protections.
“Every day that goes by, the special counsel is at risk,” Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren declared. “The Republicans assured us that the special counsel would be fully protected. And now the only way that we can guarantee that is if we pass a bill by a huge majority in the House and the Senate.”
The Massachusetts lawmaker is one of several Democrats who have said that the Mueller clause could be a stand-alone bill or part of another piece of legislation, rather than a component of the budget measure. “What would be acceptable to me is McConnell bringing our bill to the floor,” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said. “That would make me satisfied.”
McConnell continues to shoot down the suggestion, arguing that the Mueller investigation does not need protection. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who will retire when the new Congress is seated in January, said he understands the Democrats' position.
“I don't blame them,” he told reporters. “Politically, they can make a lot of fuss over it. ... To be honest with you, there's not any reason to worry about it. Any president who would dump (Mueller) would be in real trouble.”
This is not the first time that Democrats have tried to shield the special counsel from Trump. On two previous occasions, the party's members on the House Appropriations Committee introduced measures to ban the Justice Department from attempting to “obstruct, hinder, frustrate, impede or prevent” the investigation. The committee's GOP majority shot down the proposals.
The dynamics change when Democrats take over control of the House. “I'm not sure what the House is going to do,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the third-ranking Democrat in the lower chamber.