Rep. Bobby rush, Sen. Dick Durbin, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky participate in a roundtable discussion during the government shutdown earlier this month. File Photo. James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Congress mulls outlawing shutdowns as negotiations kick off to avoid another

SHARE Congress mulls outlawing shutdowns as negotiations kick off to avoid another
SHARE Congress mulls outlawing shutdowns as negotiations kick off to avoid another

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 17 House and Senate lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is kicking off negotiations Wednesday on a border security deal with a Feb. 15 deadline looming to avoid another partial government shutdown.

These veteran appropriators have the know-how to forge difficult agreements. The wild card – no surprise, right – is whether President Donald Trump will accept the deal if it does not include $5.7 billion for his border wall, the one Mexico was supposed to pay for.

Last Friday Trump and congressional leaders struck a short-term deal to reopen government after a record 35-day partial shutdown. The contentious border funding question was thrown to what is known in Congress as a conference committee.

Conference committees, left to their own devices, work out differences between the House and Senate Republicans and Democrats successfully all the time.

“As one of the members of the homeland security conference committee, I look forward to good faith negotiations on both sides. The American people want us to find common ground,” Durbin said in a tweet.

Durbin added in another tweet, “I’m hopeful that Dems & Republicans can negotiate a bipartisan agreement on smart & effective ways to secure our border. But all bets are off if the President has the last word & sticks to his position of keeping his unrealistic campaign promise of a big and beautiful wall.”

Trump has already threatened to declare a national emergency to grab federal dollars for his wall if Congress does not give him what he wants.

Should shutdowns be outlawed?

This latest shutdown ended as middle class federal workers and contractors struggled because of missed paychecks – in red states and blue states.

The economy suffered. The tipping point was likely the slowing of the nation’s air traffic system, with several major airports in a jam because there were not enough TSA agents and air traffic controllers on the job without pay.

That put on the table in Congress the notion that shutdowns should be banned, taken off the table as a bargaining chip.

Durbin on Friday said in a statement that the House and Senate could eliminate shutdowns by changing their self-imposed rules.

“One of the results of this embarrassing, destructive, and unnecessary government shutdown should be a new bipartisan rule which guarantees we will never face this again,” Durbin said.

There are several legislative measures circulating, including one by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Rep. Paul Mitchell R- Mi.

Other anti-shutdown ideas are floating around the Capitol.

The upside is no more shutdowns.

The downside is if there is an automatic funding system –– there may be an incentive for the extreme left and right to never say yes to anything – and essentially freeze federal spending, even if there is a cost-of living provision attached.

How a shutdown ban is engineered matters.

“I’m open to ideas,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth D-Ill., told me.

An automatic continuing resolution to keep federal funds flowing takes a shutdown “off the table as a weapon. Again, I just don’t want to see more hostage taking,” Duckworth said.

When I ran the idea of a outlawing shutdowns past Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Lauren Underwood and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, they all were open to it.

Top Democratic House leaders may be divided on the matter. On Friday, at a lunch with journalists, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked if she would “think about” legislation to outlaw shutdowns and she said “yes.”

The second-in-command, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer D-Md., told reporters, “I personally am reticent about automatic bills that in effect, take Congress out of having to make decisions.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky McConnell is also open to taking shutdowns out of the bargaining equation.

Said McConnell at a Tuesday presser, “I’d be open to anything that we could agree on on a bipartisan basis that would make [shutdowns] pretty hard to occur again.”

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