With just three days left before the federal government runs out of money, congressional Democrats are divided over whether to risk a shutdown in order to force Republicans to sign on to a bipartisan immigration deal this week.
It’s the same quandary the party faced last month and twice before that. Only now, the stakes are higher and Republicans appear to be handing them some leverage.
At issue is whether to support a measure to keep the government running absent a deal to grant legal protections for the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Last month, Democrats punted on the matter. And with a March deadline looming for the formal end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—which protected an estimated 800,000 DREAMers from deportation—they are now facing impassioned demands from their base to take advantage of one of their few remaining pressure points.
“[President Donald Trump] said to the Republican Congress, fix it. Remember that? That’s what he said. Fix it. And it is their job to fix it. So, no, I will not be voting for any [short-term extension] that does not provide legal status to the DREAMers and a path toward citizenship,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters at the Capitol.
But that sentiment is not shared universally across the party, with some lawmakers wary that Democrats would both cede the moral high ground and invite the blame.
“Historically, it’s Republicans that shut the government down and Democrats don’t want to play that,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), a progressive Democrat who is up for re-election in a state Trump won in 2016. “Every time the government shuts down or always shuts down, it’s the Tea-Party talking points and it’s threatening to shut the government down, it’s threatening to not pay our bills, threatening default—it’s what they do. Democrats absolutely don’t want to shut the government down.”
Government shutdowns are high-risk political ventures for the party not occupying the White House. Bill Clinton famously tarred Republicans during the government shutdown in the mid-90s while Barack Obama won the upper hand during the standoff in 2013.
Democrats have pinned their hopes on the Republican party being divided over how best and long to fund the government before it runs out of money. On Tuesday evening, House Republicans debuted a provision that would keep the government running for four weeks and delay some tax provisions related to Obamacare. The bill had a sweetener for Democrats—the funding of the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that lapsed in late September. But the measure, notably, did not address DACA or any immigration-related issues.
No sooner was the bill floated, however, than conservative opposition to it begin to mount.
A House GOP aide told The Daily Beast that conservative holdouts were opposed to stop-gap measures in general and that the likelihood of them being persuaded to support a four-week continuing resolution was minimal. Should enough House Republicans balk, it could provide the opening that Democrats would need, since their votes would be necessary for any measure to pass.
In the Senate, the party’s leverage is even greater. Republican leadership in that chamber will have to convince at least nine Democrats to help them pass a government funding measure before the lights turn off on Friday night.
Even before news of a House GOP deal emerged, Republican leaders in the Senate were hinting that they, too, would propose a short-term resolution that did not include the much-ballyhooed bipartisan immigration compromise agreed to last week that provided DREAMers with a pathway to citizenship, revamped the visa lottery program and enhanced border security.
Republicans have called Senate Democrats’ bluff before and won. Last month, just over two dozen Senate Democrats voted against a stopgap measure because it did not codify DACA protections. The bill ultimately passed with 66 votes, more than two dozen of whom were Democrats—much to the dismay of the liberal base.
Faced with another vote this week, the party’s slate of aspiring 2020 presidential candidates—notably Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—has encouraged their colleagues to adopt a more united front. And they’ve been joined by more progressive members of the party.
“There’s no reason we can’t get this done. There is one compromise that can get the votes, and it’s just up to [Republican leaders] whether they want to schedule it or not,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) said, referring to the bipartisan compromise brokered last week. “And the reason they don’t want to schedule it is not because it can’t get the votes, but because it can. And they would have to do a bipartisan deal, which they are still allergic to.”
But others were notably evasive in contemplating the possibility of a shutdown—instead lamenting the process itself.
“Look,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), “we’ve got to do our job at some point. This should’ve been done at the end of September. It was not. And now we’re here five months later and we’re still talking about the same stuff.”
As Democrats continue to weigh the positives and negatives, Trump has given himself a head start on blaming his opponents for the possibility that the government shuts down and a DACA deal falls through.
Democrats have their talking points, too. Aides note that there has never been a government shutdown when Republicans control both the legislative and executive branches. Progressive operatives, meanwhile, have encouraged party members to see an electoral opportunity in exciting their base with a “my way or the highway” strategy on DACA—an approach that could increase Democratic turnout in November but, others worry, may backfire in conservative-leaning states with Democratic senators facing tough re-election battles.
A bigger motivator may, in the end, be the president himself. Party members were steaming over the weekend about Trump’s reported remarks about halting immigration from “shithole countries,” citing them as prima facie evidence that the window for getting a DACA deal done was getting dangerously smaller.
“I think the president has challenged good-faith negotiations,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told The Daily Beast. “You had a good-faith negotiation, he said he supported it, and then he pulled the rug out from under it. So how do you negotiate under those circumstances? It makes it tough.”