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Obama Executive Action Could Foment Government Shutdown Drama


Through much of today's program, we're tracking President Obama's plan to change U.S. immigration policy. He plans to address the nation tonight. Without an act of Congress, the president is expected to offer temporary legal status - technically, delayed enforcement of the law - to some people who are here without documents. That's provoking a Republican reaction and prompting talk of a government shutdown. We're going to discuss this with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's on the line. Tamara, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. Let's remember why there would be a government shutdown. There's a deadline approaching. The government's budget authority runs out again. What's happening here exactly?

KEITH: Yeah. And that deadline is midnight, in the middle of the night, on December 11. That is a result of a short-term spending bill that was passed back in September. So now the appropriations committees are negotiating at the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans. Behind the scenes, they're working together. They're negotiating, trying to pass a big spending bill that would keep the government open and functioning and fully operating through the end of next September. You can call this sort of the anti-cliff bill. And the negotiations are going pretty well. If they succeed, this could give the new Republican Congress that starts in January a clean slate. It would stop the budget wars, at least for now. And it would allow them to focus on their agenda - sort of a happily-ever-after type of thing.

INSKEEP: Oh, that sounds so beautiful. I'm sure it's all going to work out that way, right?

KEITH: Oh, it's a fairytale. Right.

INSKEEP: OK. All right, fine. So what happens, really? What's going wrong here?

KEITH: Well, so the president's executive action is causing Republicans - some in Congress - to say well, what can we do to react? And the power of the purse strings is something that they feel like they have as leverage - one of the few areas that they currently have as leverage. They're talking about maybe defunding the part of the budget that would directly affect the president's executive action or maybe pass part of that big spending bill but to hold back part of it. Jeff Duncan is a Republican congressman from South Carolina.


REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DUNCAN: We control the purse strings, and there's a disagreement over us not funding immigration reform or executive amnesty. Then if the government shuts down over that, it'll be his fault because he doesn't have to do this. He's overstepping if he does - I think - overstepping the bounds a little bit. But we're not talking about shutdown. We're talking about a way to fund government.

KEITH: So basically, what he's saying is that if there's a government shutdown because this becomes a fight, then that would be the president's fault. And some outside conservatives are actually saying, you know that last government shutdown a year ago - year and a half ago? Oh, it didn't turn out so badly. They had a big sweep in the elections.

INSKEEP: It certainly didn't hurt them in the longer term. So all of this raises a question about timing, Tamara. And there's been a lot of discussion about this on political blogs and elsewhere. Why is it that the president would stick a thumb in the eye of the Republicans at this moment when this deadline is approaching?

KEITH: Possibly because he wants to. And some of the Republicans on the Hill I spoke to feel like he's doing this on purpose - that he's picking a fight and trying to goad them into doing something that would be potentially bad for them. And so I actually have to say that very few Republicans are using the word shutdown right now. They don't even want to utter it because they feel like it would be a mistake.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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