Two truths emerged from a deal that the Senate cut on Monday to re-open the federal government after a weekend-long shutdown. The first is that Democrats caved. The second is that they find themselves somewhat better positioned for what is likely to be another, far more bitter, shutdown battle in the coming weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced on Monday that he would accept a deal that would fund the government through Feb. 8 in exchange for a relatively vague promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) to bring up legislation that would address the so-called Dreamers—undocumented youth brought to the U.S. illegally.
The deal was, on its surface, devoid of a major win for either party—but especially for Democrats. Republicans kicked the can down the road on government funding, but they also gave no concrete policy concessions in exchange for votes. A majority of Senate Democrats sided with them anyway.
“Are you looking for a spine?” one top Senate Democratic aide told The Daily Beast after the Senate vote concluded. “Because, I don’t have one to sell you.”
But the loss obscured what others saw as a longer term gain for Democrats. As Congress now goes about considering immigration reform, there are new political variables at play.
Republicans no longer have children’s health care as a political cudgel against Democrats, since the bill that passed on Monday includes a six-year authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). And McConnell is on the spot to follow through on his pledge to resolve the standoff over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
In caucus meetings, Senate Democrats made the case that they need to show Republicans that they are willing to go to extreme lengths—even forcing another shutdown next month—in order to salvage DACA protections. Liberal activists are expected to mobilize a campaign to pressure Democrats to keep their word.
“Grassroots pressure now has to become utterly overwhelming,” MoveOn’s political director Ben Wikler texted The Daily Beast immediately after the vote.
The Democrats who voted for the stopgap funding extension on Monday argued that McConnell’s promise was so public that it would be a political disaster for the majority leader if he reneged.
“There is no way that we would have been on immigration had we not forced the issue,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told The Daily Beast, characterizing the shutdown as a victory. “This is the first time ever that, under Republican control, we’re taking up this issue. … Had we not stood firm, there’s no way that Leader McConnell would be taking up DACA.”
In private, some Democrats expressed relief that the standoff came to a quick end. In the days leading up to the government shutdown, top activists in the party were torn over whether it was a good idea at all. One close Schumer adviser told The Daily Beast that the minority leader was walking into an altogether unwinnable situation and that the best maneuver would be to pocket the CHIP extension and fight another day.
“The problem is that Democrats got the balls to shut the government down mid-last week,” said the senior aide. “And the problem is that when, on Wednesday, you have the balls to do it, you don’t have enough time to message what the shutdown is about.”
A top Democratic pollster told The Daily Beast that the numbers did favor the party heading into the shutdown. But as the public became aware of the details of the disagreements, the reaction turned into a “pox on both your houses” moment. In particular, there was real fear that Democrats were being successfully tarred with hurting the military—a point that Vice President Mike Pence notably used during his trip to the Middle East.
In agreeing to a deal, these advisers insist, Schumer got the party out of a bind that was only likely to worsen.
Others saw it far differently. Progressive activists in particular fumed at Schumer for agreeing to provide the votes to reopen the government, pointing to McConnell’s past promises to his fellow Republicans which have gone unmet—including a commitment to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to have a DACA bill on the Senate floor in January. Sixteen Democrats voted against Monday’s stopgap bill to reopen the government, many for precisely that reason.
“I don’t believe [McConnell] made any commitment whatsoever,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). “And I think it would be fool-hearted to believe that he made a commitment.”
Nor is Monday’s result any relief to immigrant communities who have watched DACA protections evaporate and who now see the March 5 deadline for the program to expire inch even closer. CREDO, a progressive political advocacy organization that helped draft a letter in December alongside more than 130 progressive groups urging that a clean DREAM Act be added to any spending bill, blasted Schumer as ”the worst negotiator in Washington.”
“Any plan to protect Dreamers that relies on the word of serial liars like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan or Donald Trump is doomed to fail,” political director Murshed Zaheed wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
Inside the White House, the mood was more celebratory. By early afternoon on Monday, President Donald Trump was already commenting that Democrats on Capitol Hill had “choked” and “caved” so quickly, according to two administration officials.
Though the president was eager to show he wasn’t sitting on the sidelines of this fight—“itching” to get personally involved and claim some credit, as one senior official framed it to The Washington Post—some of his closest advisers had repeatedly counseled him to keep his distance. Still, the White House was determined to spin the deal struck on Monday afternoon as the result of the labor and the conviction of a president who, despite an appearance to the contrary, was in control the whole time.
“[Trump] made clear no negotiations until the #SchumerShutdown was ended and military and first responders no longer held hostage,” White House Deputy Communications Director Jessica Ditto tweeted at a reporter who pointed out on Monday that Democrats had managed to hand “a disengaged president a win.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng