Congress Shuts Down Government Over Fight to Keep Dreamers in America
Republicans can’t agree and Democrats won’t budge.
On the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the federal government ran out of money to pay its bills—and according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the president rejected a deal that would have given Republicans some wins on immigration reform and defense spending while keeping the government open.
“That was a long night,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) joked after the marathon session that concluded around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday.
After a remarkable series of events characterized by chaos and confusion, the U.S. Senate late Friday night found itself in familiar territory: in the hours—and then the minutes—before an expected vote, lawmakers were unaware of what exactly would be put to the floor for a vote, as negotiations between Republicans and Democrats took taking place behind closed doors from morning to night in order to break the impasse.
“They seem to like to play it right down to the wire,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who has bemoaned for months that Congress has been unable to cobble together a long-term budget.
But this time, a deadline to keep the full federal government operating was fast approaching and there was little room for error. By nightfall, it was clear that all sides remained at an impasse. The government shut down at midnight after the Senate fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance a House-passed four-week spending bill amid overwhelming opposition from Democrats.
“If you’re going to shut her down for 300 million Americans, you better have a damn good reason,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said. “Nobody wants that. Unless there’s an emergency. And we don’t have an emergency. We have a manufactured crisis.”
Behind the scenes, though, party leaders—anticipating a failed vote on the House-passed measure—were already dicsussing the contours of a new deal. In an unexpected twist, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) left the vote open even after every senator, save for himself, had voted. Senators were suddenly forming huddles on the floor as McConnell and Schumer, his Democratic counterpart, exited together and re-emerged later. More than two hours passed before McConnell, after haranguing Democrats for blocking the House bill, said the Senate would vote on a funding extension that would expire in three weeks, on Feb. 8.
“I may live to eat these words—the Congress is beginning to realize the American people expect more of us,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “Between the soldier in the field and the DACA recipient, we have some real-world reasons to get our act together and grow up.”
But it was still unclear on Saturday morning whether Democrats were on board with the new pitch, which they demanded include a commitment on a vote before Feb. 8 to codify legal protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally.
After the partisan bickering—during which Republicans and Democrats, in typical Washington fashion, blamed each other for the shutdown—Schumer revealed that during his “lengthy and substantive” meeting with Trump earlier Friday, he “reluctantly put the border wall on the table for discussion,” in exchange for “strong protections” for those undocumented immigrants, known as DREAMers. Schumer said he sensed Trump was warm to the idea.
But later in the afternoon, according to a source familiar with the exchange, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called Schumer to reject that deal, which would have also included GOP requests on defense spending.
As Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) described it, Schumer and Trump “virtually” had an agreement in place, but Trump “walked away from it after he talked to his hard right,” presumably referring to the immigration hardliners in Congress.
“I think Sen. Schumer tried very hard to reach a responsible compromise on a wide range of topics,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told The Daily Beast before the clock struck midnight. “And I think if they had reached that compromise and the Republican leader had embraced it, we’d be announcing it rather than what I’m expecting is about to happen.”
Saturday marked the first government shutdown since 2013, and the first of its kind with Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. Democrats were quick to argue that Trump was responsible for the shutdown, but Republicans pointed out that a majority of their members—in addition to five red-state Democrats—voted in favor of the House-passed bill, which would have kept the government open.
“We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, apparently rejecting Democrats’ requests for a commitment on an immigration deal before the next funding battle in February. “This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators.”
The White House’s hard line after the last-minute collapse of the apparent deal underscored the fact that Congress is no closer to a broad bipartisan agreement on immigration than it was a month ago, when a similar number of Democrats voted against a four-week spending bill citing objections over a lack of DREAMer protections. Trump rescinded the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September, and it formally lapses on March 5. Some 800,000 immigrants who came to the United States as children are protected under DACA (and they have an estimated 200,000 U.S.-born children.)
In the meantime, the issue has found itself at the center of high-stakes government funding battles over the last four months.
“It does need to be solved legislatively so the DREAMers, the DACA population, know that they have a permanent fix—it’s not just dependent on who’s president at the time doing executive orders,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told The Daily Beast, adding that he does not regret that Trump rescinded the DACA program and kicked the issue to Congress.
But other Republicans have been quick to blame the president for his apparently shifting positions on the issue. On Thursday, Flake lamented that McConnell had declared earlier in the week Congress should wait for Trump’s signals before acting on DACA. By Friday, though, Flake told reporters that McConnell had come around to his position: hold a vote on a bipartisan DACA bill regardless of whether it has Trump’s support.
“The way to find out what the president wants on DACA is to pass a bill and to bring a bill to the floor, and that’s what the majority leader has now agreed to do,” said Flake, who co-authored a bipartisan plan that codifies DACA and allocates additional funding for border security. “Sen. McConnell realized that we can’t rely on the president to come up with an agreement on a bill. We can’t wait for the president. … At this point, we agree that we can’t wait for the White House anymore.”
Since many federal offices aren’t open on weekends, the effects of the shutdown will likely not be felt until Monday. But the House and Senate are returning to work for a rare Saturday session to in an effort to re-open the government before then.
“It’s a reasonable amount of time. It gives the Democrats a win,” Corker said flatly of the proposed three-week solution.
But as lawmakers left the Capitol early Saturday morning, there was no commitment from Democrats that they would sign onto the three-week extension, as it was still possible that they could demand a vote on DACA at an earlier date—despite the late-night sniping from the White House. Still, Republicans have differences in their own caucus that they’ll need to resolve first, with House Republicans less eager to sign onto a bipartisan immigration deal that does not include sufficient border security funding and other immigration restrictions.
“Mitch can’t tell the House what to do. He can’t tell the president what to do. But we can tell ourselves what we want to do. March 5 will be here before we know it,” said Graham, one of the primary lawmakers pushing for a three-week stopgap solution.