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William Rivers Pitt | Rand Paul and the Sleepover Shutdown: A Three-Act Farce

The GOP nonchalantly ditched its long-time focus on deficits.

Sen. Rand Paul, who made a move to block Thursday's budget deal, walks back to his office after a TV interview at the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 8, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Sen. Rand Paul walks back to his office a TV interview at Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. Sen. Paul made a move to block a budget deal Thursday as the government will run out of funding at midnight for seeking to vote on an amendment to restore budget caps. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)Sen. Rand Paul, who made a move to block Thursday’s budget deal, walks back to his office after a TV interview at the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 8, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

It was quite a morning, yeah? Let’s see: The federal government shut down, the Senate passed the budget bill, the House passed the Senate’s bill, the Dreamers got screwed and the Tea Party movement evaporated like a wholly unnoticed fart. Be glad you slept: Watching these chowderheads try to govern is a sad, debasing experience in broad daylight. In the dungeons of 3 am, it’s an existential crisis.

Why did this spectacle play out the way it did?

For one thing, Rand Paul is running for president in 2020. He hasn’t formally announced yet, and has made no public moves to prepare for such an endeavor, but he’s running. Last night’s display of hypocritical hubris was genuinely Ted Cruzian in scope, a sure sign that the lust for that highest office is once again upon him.

Paul wanted an amendment to keep the budget spending caps — the “sequester” from days of yore — in place, and sought a floor debate on the matter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted a damn vote, thank you, as the bill was already locked up. McConnell was also concerned that other senators would want to add their own amendments if Paul was allowed to do so. He called for a vote, and Paul ran him right off the road by holding everything up, which any single senator is empowered to do.

In this, Rand Paul murdered irony. Here is the deficit defender, his hands still red from the vote he gave in favor of the trillion-dollar-plus tax giveaway, trying to show the world that he and his hair gel are all that lies between us and fiscal doom. By making his stand, Paul exposed the Republican Party as nothing more than a cartel of hypocrites. His fellow GOP senators know it, and they are pissed. Sen. John Cornyn in particular appeared to be gnawing on gravel as Paul held forth.

Pause a moment to appreciate the perfect strangeness of the moment, in the wake of the $1.5 trillion tax cuts that Republicans passed at the end of last year.

“The long-term implications of all this borrowing,” reports Alan Rappeport, “put the United States on track to ultimately owe more to its creditors than the economy produces over the course of a year. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that the United States will run $2 trillion annual budget deficits by 2027 and have a debt-to-gross domestic product ratio of 105 percent — a level not seen since the end of World War II.”

The GOP styles itself as the party of fiscal responsibility, the deficit hawks seeking to drown the government in a bathtub. Now, after passing back-to-back bills that massively increase spending (particularly on the military) while drastically decreasing incoming revenue, Republicans have fundamentally rewired their alleged reason for being.

Consider this: The budget deal, passed by the House and Senate and supported by President Trump, is more expensive than the budget proposed by Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, and is also more expensive than President Obama’s final budget request. That’s some heady company to be keeping if you’re a fiscal conservative, yet here we are.

One of Paul’s colleagues eventually managed to strap some rigging tape over his mouth, and in the bleak morning hours of “Shutdown Friday Again,” the bill passed 71-28. In a move that stunned and surprised virtually no one, this latest bill — which sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars for a vast array of programs and pet projects — says nary a word about the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, the nearly 800,000 Dreamers facing deportation for the crime of being babies when they were carried across the border. McConnell’s prior-shutdown promise to Sen. Chuck Schumer stands unshockingly unfulfilled.

After the Senate passed the thing, the stage was set for a truly Homeric bloodbath in the House. On the right, the Freedom Caucus was frothing over all the new spending, except for all the defense spending which is so awesome you guys. On the left, Nancy Pelosi tried to rally progressives to oppose the legislation with a historic eight-hour floor speech denouncing the bill for not addressing the Dreamers, though curiously, she did not actively whip for votes against it after her speech. All this before the House even had a chance to tinker with the bill in reconciliation. The walls were sweating in anticipation of the collision.

… and then, foop, it was done. No muss, no fuss, no fight. At 5:30 this morning, the House passed the Senate bill untouched by a vote of 240-186, and Trump’s mid-morning signature made it law. Pelosi’s paper tiger had no bite. It was almost anti-climactic, except for this: The bill, as passed, only secures federal facilities’ funding for another six weeks. If legislation to fund governmental operations is not passed and signed by March 23, the federal government will shut down again, because of course it will. This is the Reign of the Chowderheads, and the only thing you can count on is not being able to count on anything.

The Tea Party thing is over now. Remember all those rallies in 2010 where people carrying guns and poorly spelled signs were all hot and bothered about the deficit? How quaint. The GOP rode that GOP-manufactured anger into broad congressional domination, the eventual election of Donald Trump and a massive tax heist. Now? Thanks folks, but we don’t do that deficit stuff anymore. Here’s a pat on the head and some Trump hats. This is but one of the many betrayals the GOP base can look forward to. One wonders if they will even notice.

Weirdest of all, perhaps, is the fact that this is actually not a wholly terrible bill — certainly not a comprehensive horror show like the tax bill. A number of good things happen with this. For one thing, the debt limit is taken care of for a year, saving us from another go-round with that weaponized farce. Also, according to NPR:

The deal includes $6 billion in funding for treatment of mental health issues and opioid addiction, $2 billion in extra funding for the National Institutes of Health, and an additional four-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which builds on the six years approved by Congress last month.

In the Medicare program, the deal would accelerate the closing of the “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug coverage that requires seniors to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket before catastrophic coverage kicks in. It would also repeal the controversial Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is charged with holding down Medicare spending for the federal government if it exceeds a certain level.

The agreement would also fund a host of more limited health programs. Those programs include more than $7 billion in funding for the nation’s federally funded community health centers. The clinics serve 27 million low-income people and saw their funding lapse last fall — a delay advocates say had already complicated budgeting and staffing decisions for many clinics.

Add to that funding for Puerto Rico and other regions still desperately in need of disaster relief, and what we have here is a number of Democratic priorities finally funded despite their minority status in Congress. The Pentagon gets another $300 billion it doesn’t need and didn’t ask for, because “defense” spending is where the real money laundering takes place. What those billions could accomplish but won’t is flatly devastating. Despite this violent choice, this bill could have been a hell of a lot worse.

However, the Dreamers were again abandoned by the Democrats in this equation. Now, DACA recipients must still trust that Mitch McConnell will allow an actual immigration debate to take place in the Senate, and must then contend with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he will only entertain an immigration bill Trump will sign. That is pretty much like trying to predict the weather in the Crab Nebula.

Approval for opening the full citizenship door to the Dreamers stands at more than 80 percent nationwide and enjoys broad Republican support, so one wonders where the controversy lies. Hey, it’s only 800,000 people and their families, right? If proof were ever needed that racism still guides the heart of American politics, look no further than the precarity of the Dreamers and the way Congress keeps sweeping their lives to the wayside.

All I know for sure is the GOP seems to have reinvented itself and thrown the Tea Party into the harbor. McConnell and Ryan will do nothing for the Dreamers unless their hand is forced, so it’s time for Schumer and Pelosi to get creative and force the issue. The Dreamers are not a line item; they are hundreds of thousands of human beings whose lives are at stake. Can the Republicans be shamed into helping them? Stranger things have happened. It falls to the Democrats to try, and a whole lot of people will be watching.

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