The Shutdown, DACA, and Immigration: Where We Are

A few hours after last week’s Sift posted, a compromise ending the 3-day government shutdown, at least temporarily, passed the Senate. By evening President Trump had signed it, and federal employees returned to work Tuesday morning.

Here’s what was agreed to:

  • A continuing resolution maintained previous spending levels for another three weeks, until February 8.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program was reauthorized for another six years.
  • Three taxes that were part of the Affordable Care Act got delayed for a year: on medical devices, on so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans, and a general tax on health insurance plans. The expected increase in the deficit is $31 billion.
  • A number of Republican senators agreed to work on a bill to protect the Dreamers from deportation, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to let such a bill come to a vote in the Senate.

On the left, many angrily charged that the Democrats had “caved”, and that the Dreamers had been betrayed or abandoned. I don’t see it that way. For the most part I agree with Ezra Klein’s view: that if no larger agreement can be reached in the meantime, Democrats will be in a somewhat better position on February 8 than they were last Monday:

if Democrats do need to shut down the government in three weeks, they’ll do so with the Children’s Health Insurance Program funded for six years, rather than seeing it weaponized against them. That’s a big deal, both substantively and politically.

McConnell’s promise may or may not amount to much in itself, but I think it matters in the public perception. If some kind of DACA compromise can pass the Senate, the House can still kill it, but that will have a price.

What matters in a shutdown. The American public doesn’t like government shutdowns. Government workers and contractors don’t like not getting paid. People who depend on government services don’t like doing without them. Families don’t like being turned away at national parks.

For the two major political parties, it’s not even a zero-sum game; it’s a negative-sum game. A common knee-jerk reaction to a shutdown is to blame both parties and lose a little more faith in American democracy. (In a parliamentary system, failure to fund the government would result in new elections.) The only political justification for causing a shutdown is if you believe that the blame will overwhelmingly be charged to the other party. If that’s true, then it tends to snowball: More and more of the public doesn’t understand why the party that is losing the shutdown doesn’t give in.

How this one was playing out. At the outset, there was good reason to blame the Republicans: They control all three power centers, after all.

What’s more, the main issue on the Democratic side is a popular one: Hardly anybody wants to see the Dreamers deported, which could start happening in March, thanks to Trump’s executive order reversing Obama’s DACA executive order.

The problem is that support for the Dreamers among the general public is shallow. Lots of people sympathize, but not that many are willing to make sacrifices. Worse, Republicans had cynically held CHIP back as a bargaining chip rather than reauthorizing it back in September. No one was really against CHIP, but Ryan and McConnell saw it as something they use in precisely a situation like the one we just had.

So if the shutdown continued, the messaging war looked like it might turn around to favor the Republicans: Democrats were blocking a deal that included CHIP because it didn’t include DACA, so they were hurting kids to help illegal immigrants.

Schumer could see that snowball starting to roll, particularly in red and purple states where Democratic senators have to run for re-election in November, so he got out quickly, before any of the vulnerable Democratic senators felt like they had to defect.

Standing up for something. Schumer’s critics say that the Democrats should have made a stand. The problem with making a stand on a shutdown is that a shutdown doesn’t end in some natural way. Democratic stands on ObamaCare and the Republican tax cut ended: one in victory and the other in defeat. They are issues to take to the voters in 2018.

But a shutdown doesn’t end until somebody gives in, and if the other side is happier with their position than you are with yours, they’re not going to be the ones. So the question becomes: How far are you willing to take this? What if it gets to be March and the Dreamers start getting deported anyway? What if it gets to be June and nobody can go to Yellowstone? What if it’s November and voters are going to the polls? How far?

The endgame, in that scenario, is that Democratic senators defect one-by-one until the Republicans can pass what they want. Schumer didn’t want that.

The next showdown. Instead, he maneuvered, hoping to reach February 8 with a position that would be easier to defend. I think he succeeded at that: CHIP will be off the table. McConnell either will or won’t have allowed a vote on a DACA compromise. If he doesn’t, that’s another simple argument the public can understand: We tried to bargain in good faith, and the other side wouldn’t.

The ideal scenario for Schumer is that a DACA compromise passes the Senate before February 8, hopefully by a wide margin. (In 2013, the Senate passed an immigration bill 68-32.) It’s not clear that McConnell would be against this.

The fate of all immigration compromises is in the House, where they would also pass if they could get to the floor, but the Republican leadership blocks them. That sets up a shutdown demand that I think Democrats can sell: Ryan doesn’t have to support the Senate’s DACA compromise, he just has to let the House vote on it. Let my people vote!

An additional point is that the longer the DACA negotiations stay on the front pages, the more the Republicans undermine their own most popular arguments. What Trump wants in exchange for DACA isn’t just border security, but a sharp reduction in legal immigration, and a shift towards more white immigrants. That supports the Democrats’ main point: The whole issue isn’t about legality, it’s about race. It’s about Making America White Again.

Even if a permanent solution isn’t reached — that’s the current conventional wisdom, which could change —  a deal that prevents deportation temporarily and leaves the ultimate verdict to the 2018 voters is not the worst outcome.

Conclusion. In short, I think Schumer abandoned a losing position in order to set up one with more possibilities. I’m withholding judgment until I see how this plays out.

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  • Roger Owen Green  On January 29, 2018 at 10:36 am

    I agree with you about Schumer, but most of my liberal friends think he capitulated for no gain. Actually, so do my conservative friends, but they are cackling.

  • Kaci  On January 29, 2018 at 10:53 am

    I’m a liberal, but I think shutting down the government is a bad option if a continuing resolution is on the table. My understanding was that the CR itself had nothing to do with DACA, so it seems to me to make sense to pass it rather than to hurt people who are affected by the government shutdown. If it’s wrong for Republicans to play chicken with basic government functions, it’s wrong for Democrats to do it to. But I am willing to be persuaded differently if someone can tell me what I’m missing.

  • Wm. Gilboe  On January 29, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Schumer has fewer cards to play than the Republicans and he needs to pay attention to the long game. I think he’s doing the best he can with the hand he’s been dealt. Hard to stomp your feet and get your way when you hold the minority position in all three branches of government.

  • Linda Martin  On January 29, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    I agree completely that Schumer is doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt. I’m tired of hearing the far left screech endlessly about not getting their way. They are more concerned with being outraged than with accomplishing what is possible. They are exactly like the the Tea Party. Politics is often a long game filled with compromise. Both the far left and the far right are what is wrong with our politics today.

  • adamsmith1922  On January 29, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    Useful analysis and repays reading in full

  • MAHA  On January 29, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    In Canada we (or maybe I should only speak for myself) often find American politics much more interesting than Canadian politics. Right now my awareness of Canadian politics is but peripheral compared to my awareness of American politics.

    I do not understand why it has been government by CR for so long. Why hasn’t a proper budget been passed? Is it because Trump’s plans are so unclear and so how much funding for exactly what can’t even be guessed at?

    Deborah McP

    • weeklysift  On January 30, 2018 at 9:36 am

      I wish our politics were as boring as Canadian politics looks from here.

      I see two factors in the failure to pass a real budget. First, the filibuster, which makes a supermajority necessary in the Senate. And second, that Republicans got to Congress by opposing Obama. They never united behind a positive program.


  • By Saving Jesus | The Weekly Sift on January 29, 2018 at 11:26 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Trump’s Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand” and “The Shutdown, DACA, and Immigration: Where We Are“. […]

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