Posted: Wednesday, January 3, 2018 – 12:09 PM
(AFP) Congress hit the ground running for 2018 Wednesday, with US President Donald Trump facing a two-week deadline to forge a compromise between Republicans and Democrats that avoids a government shutdown and prevents mass deportations.
The new year’s session kicked off with two Democrats being sworn in as new members of the US Senate, narrowing the chamber’s already slim Republican majority just as negotiations over crunch issues intensify.
Topping the agenda is funding the federal government by a January 19 deadline, after lawmakers were unable to strike a long-term budget deal in December.
Failure to do so would trigger a government shutdown, a potentially costly political scenario for Republicans — who control both chambers of Congress and the White House — just months before November’s mid-term elections.
Democrats showed in 2017 that their grassroots activism was getting results in swing states and traditionally Republican territory.
And with Trump’s poor approval ratings, they see 2018 as a prime opportunity to reclaim the majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives — or both.
With the budget deadline fast approaching, the four leaders in Congress huddled with White House staff Wednesday in the US Capitol in a bid to set budget caps for military and domestic spending for the remainder of fiscal year 2018.
In a note to fellow Democrats Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer would seek to avoid a “catastrophic shutdown” of the government.
But she stressed they would press hard for parity in military and non-military spending caps, and work to fund other priorities, including relief for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
“We are fighting for funding for the opioid epidemic, veterans, pensions, disaster relief, National Institutes of Health, Children’s Health Insurance Program and community health centers,” Pelosi said.
- Democrats bolstered -
Another critical issue for January is immigration reform. The Senate is expected to take up a bill to regularize the status of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children.
Trump said in September that he was scrapping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama, but he then delayed enforcement to give Congress six months to craft a lasting solution.
On Tuesday, Trump hinted at the battle that lay ahead.
“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA — just interested in politics,” the president tweeted, saying Hispanic voters will “go hard” against Democrats and turn to Republicans to get results on immigration.
Republicans are coming off a December high point, when Trump managed to get his tax reform bill through Congress for his first major legislative victory.
Democrats have blasted the tax cuts as giveaways to corporations and the wealthy, and Schumer called 2017 “a lost year” for the middle class.
“We Democrats hope that this year is different -– focused on the middle class rather than the rich and powerful,” he said, as he urged a spirit of greater bipartisanship for 2018.
The latest shifts in the Senate may strengthen Democrats’ hands in the negotiations and make it that much harder for Trump to push his legislative agenda through Congress.
Schumer said Democrats were “ready to negotiate a reasonable border security package to pass alongside DACA,” provided Republicans did not insist on “unreasonable demands” like the US-Mexico border wall repeatedly proposed by Trump.
- 22 Senate women -
Doug Jones won a special election last month in Alabama to claim a seat long held by Republicans, while Tina Smith was appointed to replace Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, who resigned over a series of sexual misconduct allegations.
Smith made history, by bringing the number of current female senators to 22, an all-time high.
She and Jones were sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence, who was joined in the Senate by former Democratic vice presidents Joe Biden and Walter Mondale.
Jones’s upset victory does not change the balance of power in the 100-member chamber, but it trims the Republican Party’s majority to 51-49.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor, defeated the Christian conservative Roy Moore, a former Alabama judge who failed to overcome damaging accusations of sexual misconduct including molesting a teenage girl.
© Agence France-Presse