Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is speaking on the Senate floor, preventing the advancement of a two-year budget deal with the hours ticking away ahead of a midnight deadline before the government starts shutting down.
Congressional negotiators were scrambling earlier Thursday to lock in enough votes in the House, and that was before Paul, a Republican, made public his dissatisfaction with the deal, which would raise government spending, avert a government shutdown and lift the debt ceiling.
A senior administrative official said the White House is instructing agencies to begin shutdown preparations in the event that Congress fails to pass a budget before the midnight deadline.
Paul is pushing for an amendment to maintain budget caps, but Senate sources say leaders have no plan to give Paul such a concession, meaning that Paul can continue to prevent a vote until after midnight, when government funding runs out.
The colossal bill, which lawmakers have been negotiating for months, would be a game-changing piece of legislation, clearing the decks for Congress in dealing with major spending issues as well as doling out disaster relief money.
The overall deal also does not address the high-profile issue of immigration, a key sticking point for many Democrats; but it does increase spending caps by $300 billion for the Pentagon and domestic priorities, a crucial incentive for getting enough votes from both parties.
The proposal also represents a sharp change in tone for Republicans who under President Barack Obama railed strongly for fiscal austerity and warned about a ballooning national debt, and are now in effect removing barriers to spending previously put in place in part by leaders from their own party.
As of Thursday afternoon, it's not clear if there are enough Republican votes to pass it in the House, meaning most likely some Democrats would have to vote for it to reach a simple majority, a fact House Speaker Paul Ryan alluded to in a Thursday morning radio interview with Hugh Hewitt.
"Part of it depends on the Democrats. This is a bipartisan bill. It's going to need bipartisan support," the Wisconsin Republican said. "We are going to deliver our share of support. I feel very good about Republicans."
The Senate took a key procedural step Thursday just after noon in which the House bill passed earlier this week failed to gather the 60 votes it needed to advance. The Senate is expected to vote to send the full deal back to the House later Thursday.
Paul amendment holds up Senate vote
Republican leaders say Paul wants a vote on an amendment that is critical of the overall agreement but leaders can't give him that vote even if they wanted to, because it requires consent from all senators.
The Senate's Majority whip sounded a bit frustrated by the holdup. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said he didn't know how long it would take to resolve the issue and said there are other procedural steps Paul could take to get a vote that leaders were talking to him about.
"Sen. Paul has some concerns he wants to be able to voice," Cornyn told reporters. "We're trying to work with him to help get that done."
Cornyn pointed out, "It takes unanimous consent to get an amendment."
"If we get one amendment up, you can imagine other people are going to have amendments," he said. "You can essentially accomplish the same thing by a point-of-order and get a vote. He doesn't need consent to do that. So that's an alternative we're going to suggest to him and work with him on."
Paul defended his stance on Fox News on Thursday evening, calling the proposal "a rotten deal" over what he considered excessive spending.
"There's only so much I can do, and this is the silly thing about it. ... I will make them listen to me, and they will have to have me listened to," Paul said. "This is too important for the country not to have a debate about it."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, criticized Paul on Twitter.
"It appears 'General' @RandPaul is at it again. He just called for the immediate withdrawal of all forces from Afghanistan as a way to give the US military a pay raise," Graham tweeted. "Fortunately, only 'General' Paul -- and the Taliban - think that's a good idea."
Key question: How many House Democrats will vote for the plan?
Some House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, plan to vote no on the bill because it doesn't include a permanent solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program.
"I know that there is a real commitment to solving the DACA challenge in both political parties. That's a commitment that I share," Ryan said during a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. "To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill: do not."
But the House speaker argued that Congress must first pass the budget agreement to shift their focus to immigration reform as a separate legislative fight.
Ryan committed to bringing a DACA solution to the House floor, "one that the President will sign."
Pelosi for her part is not whipping her fellow Democrats in the House to vote against the bill, saying at her own news conference earlier, "I am just telling people why I am voting the way I am voting."
Many Democrats are outraged that the spending deal would give away leverage on immigration issues, as it's not clear if a DACA solution would advance without firmer commitments from GOP leaders.
"Anyone who votes for the Senate budget deal is colluding with this President and this Administration to deport Dreamers," said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat and fierce advocate for DACA recipients, in a statement. "It is as simple as that."
What's in the bill?
The massive two-year budget deal proposed by Senate leaders Wednesday would raise budget caps by $300 billion in the next two years, increases the debt ceiling and offer up more than $80 billion in disaster relief for hurricane-ravaged Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
About $160 billion would go to the Pentagon and about $128 billion to non-defense programs.
"Our members who are focused on the military are very happy where we landed with that," Ryan told Hewitt on his radio show in reference to the defense spending caps.
The debt ceiling will be raised by the appropriate amount until March 2019.
Exact spending would be left to the appropriations committees, but included in the funding is $10 billion to invest in infrastructure, $2.9 billion for child care and $3 billion to combat opioid and substance abuse.
The bill also keeps the government running until late March. Funding for the federal government is set to run out Thursday night at midnight, though congressional leaders in both parties have said they don't expect a shutdown and that the deal will pass.
"I think we will," Ryan said on Hewitt's radio show earlier Thursday. "I feel good."