By Kevin Diaz
Updated 9:39 pm, Monday, January 22, 2018
WASHINGTON - The federal government is back in business and hurricane relief for Texas and other disaster-stricken states is back on the table.
The agreement that ended a three-day government shutdown Monday breathed new life into a crowded backlog of issues, including a long-delayed disaster relief package that got caught up in a broader funding dispute.
The Senate approved the deal 81-18, with all but a handful of holdouts in both parties. The House followed suit shortly thereafter by a mostly party-line vote of 266-150. Only two Texans crossed party lines in the House: Democrats Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, who voted to end the shutdown.
President Donald Trump signed the bill late Monday.
In committing to Democratic demands that the Senate bring up an immigration bill by Feb. 8 - the new government funding deadline – Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also signaled that would be a target date for resolving a legislative logjam on other issues as well, including disaster relief.
It remains to be seen if lawmakers can resolve their differences on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But McConnell's promise of Senate action on a House-passed $81 billion recovery package for Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters represented the first time that has been tied to a specific date.
"I hope and intend that we can reach bipartisan solutions on issues such as military spending, immigration and border security, and disaster relief before this Feb. 8 deadline," McConnell said.
McConnell warned, however, that progress would depend on avoiding another government shutdown, which remains a distinct possibility in 17 days given the raw feelings over the immigration battle that closed the government at midnight Saturday.
"Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on Feb. 8, so long as the government remains open, it – so long as it remains open – it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security and related issues as well as disaster relief, defense funding, health care and other important matters," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he agreed to the bargain to reopen the government based on McConnell's assurance that the Senate would "immediately proceed" to immigration legislation if a deal to address the expiring DACA program isn't struck by the Feb. 8 deadline for the new stopgap funding measure.
Republicans felt they had the upper hand in the negotiations, with Trump taunting on Twitter: "Democrats have shut down our government in the interests of their far left base. They don't want to do it but are powerless!"
Though an immigration deal might still be a heavy lift for leaders in a starkly polarized Congress, the disaster aid has a leg up, having been approved by the House in December. That leaves it up to the Senate, where the disaster money remains mired in the same annual budget fight that broke down on immigration.
Immigration, border issues
Texas Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, McConnell's top lieutenant in the Senate, expressed confidence in a bipartisan breakthrough on border security and DACA after a White House meeting Monday with other Republican senators.
"I think we can demonstrate our natural American compassion when it comes to immigrants," Cornyn said, emphasizing his commitment to Texas' estimated 124,000 "Dreamers," or DACA beneficiaries. "I have a personal interest in making sure we can come up with a bipartisan solution."
Cornyn also said that he sees a "natural symmetry" between legal relief for Dreamers and stronger border security, which he said should include infrastructure, technology and "boots on the ground."
He added that Texas, with some 800 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, has borne many of those costs until now.
But Democrats questioned Trump's commitment to working out a bipartisan solution after his campaign released a 30-second online video saying that those who stand in the way of his border plan "will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants."
Democrats also faced blowback from immigration activists who accused them of abandoning Dreamers by giving in to Republicans' demand for a three-week government funding extension.
"Today's cave by Senate Democrats - led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats - is why people don't believe the Democratic Party stands for anything," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "These weak Democrats hurt the party brand for everyone and make it harder to elect Democrats everywhere in 2018."
Trump has set a March 5 deadline to extend the DACA program, which he says he would support as long as it's done by an act of Congress.
But he has also attached conditions, including tighter restrictions on legal immigration and some version of a border wall.
For many conservatives, two touchstones in the negotiations involve moving to a "merit" system of awarding visas, rather than through the current "diversity" lottery, and curtailing family sponsorships, which critics call "chain migration."
Among Trump's strongest allies on border security in the Senate is Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
"I think it would be a serious mistake for us to pass an amnesty bill providing amnesty and a path to citizenship for millions of people here illegally, along with chain migration," he told reporters Monday.
Conservative groups also vowed to keep up the pressure.
"As Congress continues to discuss and potentially act on legislation that addresses the status of 690,000 DACA recipients, it must not ignore the elephant in the room: chain migration," said Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action.
Although the $81 billion in disaster aid was not included in the original stopgap funding measure that led to Saturday's government shutdown, it became a political football in the weekend standoff over DACA beneficiaries.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, pointed to the absence of disaster funding - along with the failure to include a DACA fix - as a reason she voted against last week's funding patch, which would have run until Feb. 16.
Republicans countered by voting against keeping the government open last week, saying Democrats were to blame for delaying relief for people affected by Harvey.
With the government reopened, Houston lawmakers vowed to make Harvey the priority it was in the first weeks after the August hurricane, one of the most catastrophic on record.
"As Congress negotiates over the next few weeks on a longer-term funding deal, passing a hurricane recovery bill remains my top priority," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a top Democratic target in 2018.