Senate Democrats Get Little as Shutdown Fight Ends With a Punt

Updated on
  • Minority settles for vague immigration pledge from McConnell
  • Shutdown fight exposes deep rift inside GOP over immigration

Schumer Says Deal Reached to Reopen Government

The U.S. government shutdown is nearly over after three days, and for many Democrats, it couldn’t end soon enough. 

The impasse exposed the Democrats’ limits on how far they were willing to go with the fight, at the risk of looking beholden to one part of their base -- activists pushing to allow the so-called dreamers to stay in the U.S. legally.

At the same time, the debate exacerbated bitter differences within the Republican Party that may prevent Congress and President Donald Trump from reaching a long-term deal on immigration, even though Trump himself has signaled many times that he’s open to one.

What both parties did was effectively punt the issue for three weeks, long enough to get past Trump’s State of the Union address on Jan. 30.

Lawmakers also reached a deal to end the shutdown just as federal agencies were beginning to implement it, and when the true pain of a shutdown would be felt by the public.

What they didn’t do was come anywhere close to a deal that would actually cement immigration changes into law. Neither Trump himself nor the House has made any public commitments to support what the Senate may do.

Even the commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to open an immigration debate fell far short of what some Democrats wanted, an ironclad promise to bring up a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in coming weeks.

Senate Moves to End U.S. Shutdown, Sets Up Immigration Fight

Chuck Schumer

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tried to put the best face on the outcome, saying on the Senate floor Monday that “now, there is a real pathway” to get a bill protecting the dreamers through the Senate.

But with the government shut and the White House employing a talk-to-the-hand strategy, Democrats settled for a statement from McConnell that he intended to bring an immigration bill to the floor for debate, and a week shorter spending bill.

Senate Democrats “caved. They blinked. That’s what they do," Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said in an interview. "It’s unfortunate."

Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter of New York said she was baffled as to why Schumer didn’t say the government shutdown was McConnell’s fault since he’s responsible for getting the votes. “I hear our numbers are dropping like a rock because, supposedly, we closed the government down,” she said.

“We’re taking a great hit,” said Slaughter. “Totally unjustified. And our people just seem to take it flat-footed.”

Democrats also got nothing from the House. Speaker Paul Ryan has promised Republican lawmakers that they won’t be bound by any arrangement reached in the Senate on immigration, House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows and Representative Doug Collins of Georgia said on Sunday.

Political Heat

The fact that enough Democrats still voted to end the shutdown suggests they were starting to feel the political heat put on by the White House, which had posed the shutdown as a fight between Americans who would lose out from the shutdown, including the military, and immigrants.

Especially for some Democrats running in 2018 in states won by Trump, that wouldn’t be an appealing choice to put before their voters.

Five of the most vulnerable Democrats voted with McConnell against a filibuster on Friday, and while Democrats continued to attack Trump and Republicans over the weekend for, among other things, not accepting much shorter bills to keep the government open, many were privately negotiating for a way out before dawn Monday, when it would begin to bite.

McConnell did firm up his offer for an immigration debate slightly on Monday by agreeing to bring a bill to the Senate floor with a fair amendment process. Democrats also won one other concession -- the immigration debate won’t be contingent on Trump’s blessing, something that moderate Republicans embraced as a breakthrough.

Even so, McConnell has said all along he wants to act before the March 5 deadline for the end of DACA, which grants protections for 690,000 young immigrants. And there’s still no guarantee something acceptable to Democrats will be embraced by the GOP leadership, by the House, or by Trump by then, all of whom have been negotiating the issue for months.

GOP Divisions

The standoff also leaves Republicans needing to repair ruptures within their own party.

While Republican leaders and the White House were largely united on the shutdown fight itself -- insisting on no negotiations on immigration and training all fire on Schumer for the stalemate -- they remain deeply divided internally on immigration.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina at one point launched a personal attack on White House aide Stephen Miller, Trump’s top adviser on immigration, saying there could be no compromise while the hard-line Miller is involved. The White House shot back that Graham was the one who’s out of step.

Graham noted that Democrats still have plenty of leverage given upcoming fights over budget spending caps and other must-pass items.

"I’m begging the White House to find a way to work with us and get to yes on a proposal that’s reasonable," Graham said. Without forward progress on immigration, Graham fears there won’t be Democratic support needed for Republican priorities including a big hike in defense spending.

Holding Firm

But Tom Cotton, the hardest line Republican on immigration in the Senate, smiled late Sunday at the Democrats’ predicament, seeing them as simply looking for a way out of a shutdown that they were quickly realizing was a political mistake.

“I don’t think it’s that much different than we were two days ago," Cotton said. 

“The most likely time for a debate and votes has always been February," he added. "I don’t understand why Democrats have gone to these lengths to shut down the government just to get what has always been the case."

And Cotton singed Graham and other senators attacking Miller, saying that was "punching down" at staff, and said the idea that Trump was being led around by staff was insulting to the president.

Republicans did find a tactical path on the shutdown itself that they may be able to revive in future shutdown fights.

The White House froze out Schumer, Ryan made it clear he would not come to the Senate Democrat’s rescue with any offers of his own, and McConnell merely offered a date change to Feb. 8, and not much more. 

On the House and Senate floor, meanwhile, Republicans dusted off Schumer’s own playbook from the 2013 shutdown fight, accusing Democrats of causing a needless disruption for a partisan agenda.

The actual policy and economic impact of the three-day shutdown could be fleeting, especially since it didn’t carry over for very long into the work week. But the political impact on both parties means the same fight could return in full force next month.

— With assistance by Sahil Kapur, and Billy House

(Updates with comments from Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter starting in 11th paragraph.)
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