Did Chuck Schumer Sell out Democratic Activists in Shutdown Negotiations?

Monday evening House and Senate leaders reached a deal to reopen the government after a three-day shutdown. The bill did not include a provision for DACA, protections for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. Was this a failure of Democrats to listen to their activist base?

Jan 22, 2018

President Trump signed a bill to end the government shutdown a little before 9pm in Washington. The deal was relatively simple. Democrats agreed to provide votes for a Senate bill that kept the government operational for three more weeks, until February 8. In return, the bill extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, ending a four-month lapse in long-term funding for the popular program. Also, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to begin a regular order committee process for an immigration deal.

Left out of the deal was the dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country when they were minors, who were protected by DACA under President Obama. President Trump ended the program in September 2017, but the protections don’t fully lapse until March of this year. However, DACA recipients who either did not reapply due to fear of giving more information to the Trump administration, and those whose DACA status expires in the gap between September and March, are still at risk of deportation.

Democrats had demanded that DACA be part of a deal to reopen the government. Now, immigration activists and the Democrat’s left flank are furious with them. Their argument – the Democrats went back on a promise they made to their base, and putting trust in Leader McConnell is laughable given his history of reneging on bipartisan compromises.

But realistically, this deal is pretty good for Democrats and the needs of their coalition. It’s nowhere near perfect. It’s certainly the case that some dreamers risk deportation between now and February 8, and that uncertainty is causing serious hardship even for those dreamers whose status is protected into March. But the strategic position the Democrats have put themselves in is even stronger than it was before. Activists, who are often much closer to the day-to-day hardships of vulnerable communities than leaders in Washington, don’t have much time for, “but our strategic negotiating position is stronger now” arguments.

That doesn’t mean the activists are right, though. The decision that Democratic leaders made this week will, in the long run, lead to more policy victories that the left cares about than if they had dug in on “DACA or shutdown” threats this time around.

Summary of the Shutdown Negotiations

The new three-week spending bill is the latest in a series of continuing resolutions, or CRs, to pass to keep the government open in recent months. Previously, Democrats have threatened to withhold their votes until DACA has been extended or made permanent. However, each time, they instead agreed to a short-term deal in exchange for other concessions from Republican leaders. This has continually infuriated immigration activists, but Democrats have yet to break their biggest promise – passing a long-term, one year or more, budget deal without protecting dreamers.

The government was close to shutting down on December 8, but Democrats agreed to a two-week extension but demanded funding for emergency relief for hurricane-rattled cities and wildfires in California. Congressional Republicans said that they didn’t want to fund disaster relief without offsetting cuts, Democrats argued Republicans simply didn’t care to help certain liberal cities and states suffering natural disasters. In exchange for putting off the shutdown two weeks, Democrats got disaster relief funding for thousands of victims.

Two weeks later, the government was facing another shutdown. This time Democrats agreed to keep the government open until January 2018, in exchange for $2.85 billion in temporary funding for CHIP, which had lapsed in funding earlier in the year. Nearly 9 million kids who rely on the program for health insurance were funded through the next budget deadline.

That brings us to the bill that was signed on Monday. After a 72-hour government shutdown, Democrats acquiesced to three more weeks of funding in exchange for six more years of funding to CHIP. If Sen. McConnell doesn’t keep his word and start working on a bill to keep dreamers in the country, then Democrats will surely shut the government down again on February 8.

The Democrats’ Strategy

It’s important to understand WHY the Democrats keep using funding for the Government as a bargaining chip. Frankly, it is because funding for the government is the only place where Democrats have any leverage.

With 47 votes in the Senate, plus independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders, and 194 seats in the House, Democrats do not have the votes to pass anything through congress. Plus, Republicans have been more than willing to use the budget reconciliation process to pass bills without needing to reach a filibuster-proof, 60 votes in the Senate. That’s how Republicans passed the tax bill last December, and how they attempted to repeal Obamacare in the summer.

Passing a budget to avoid a shutdown is a different story. This is a gross oversimplification, but the Senate can’t pass a budget through budget reconciliation, because they need to have a budget first before they can reconcile it.

So any short or long-term extensions of the federal budget would require 60 votes, and hence the Republicans need Democratic votes. As soon as a long-term spending bill is passed, Democrats will lose all leverage until after the mid-term elections.

Each time the government has come to the brink of shutting down. Sen. McConnell and GOP leadership has issued some sort of ultimatum, pitting different Democratic constituencies against each other. First, it was either natural disaster victims or dreamers. Next, it was CHIP recipients or dreamers. The clearest evidence of this Republican strategy was a tweet by Mitch McConnell right before the January 19 shutdown.

Now, disaster relief and CHIP funding have been taken care of, but Republicans are still going to need votes in order to avoid another shutdown in February. With no other demands left but DACA, Republicans will be hard pressed to find a way to keep from having an uncomfortable debate on immigration.

Whatever your opinion of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, they have squeezed a lot of victories for their coalition out of a tiny bit of leverage. But if you are still an activist pissed off at how little has been done for dreamers and other vulnerable groups, then trying to oust Chuck Schumer or Joe Manchin isn’t the answer. If you want the party that has been securing funding for healthcare and immigration to do more, then they need help – from you.

The Democrats have 49 seats in the Senate and 194 seats in the House. They could do more if they had more. The 2018 midterms are only 10 months away.