As I’m writing this, Congress is shuffling back into town for the end-of-year session, which means that everyone’s gearing up for this year’s Shutdown Theater Christmas Special.
Yes, by now a largely choreographed fight over funding or “shutting down” the government is as much a part of the Advent season as peppermint-flavored novelties, Charlie Brown’s dinky Christmas tree, and overly busy career women learning the true meaning of the holiday from hometown hunks on the Hallmark Channel.
But, as always, there looms the threat of a small fraction of the federal government not functioning for an undefined period of time if certain demands aren’t met.
Here are the demands we’re dealing with (so far) this year:
Democrats want to use the shutdown clock to push for an apparently unconstitutional bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s job. Following the appointment of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Democrats (and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.) have sounded the alarm about the need to insulate Mueller from being fired by the president who appointed him.
“I feel very strongly about protecting Bob Mueller,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a recent interview. ”I think that I will look at any and all vehicles in order to do that. That goes to the question as to whether the president is above the law.”
Meanwhile, President Trump has also toyed with the idea of using the government shutdown as a means to get concessions from Democrats on border security. As recently as Thursday POTUS said that “there certainly could be” a shutdown if immigration concerns remain unaddressed by the December 7 deadline.
What didn’t make the list? Any concerted attempt by the GOP to address Obamacare’s lingering list of problems or Planned Parenthood funding.
What might make the list: This one is a big “maybe,” but keep an eye on the proposed trade deal between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. A group of GOP lawmakers has been pushing to get that fast-tracked before the House changes to Democratic control in January. If the administration heeds the request and proposes language by the end of the week, the question of its passage could throw another layer on top of the end-of-year negotiations.
There’s also the renewed push to pass a hotly debated criminal sentencing bill and confirm a slate of federal judicial nominees before the end of the year.
What makes this year’s episode different: This is even more partial than other partial shutdowns. Whereas an average shutdown only stops funding for an estimated less than one-fifth of the federal government, this one would affect even less than that. This is because of the bundle of “minibus” spending packages that Congress passed a few months ago when it tried (and failed) to pass a full budget on time.
Those spending packages included Veterans Affairs, the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor as well as the legislative branch. This means that politicians can do their annually scheduled grandstanding about the budget without hurting things like troop pay, veterans’ benefits, or social services, which would give them longer to haggle over a deal.