The Government Shutdown Battlefield

When you look at all the issues that need to be negotiated before January 19th to avoid a government shutdown, it’s very hard to see how a shutdown can conceivably be avoided. There’s always the possibility that they’ll pass another short-term continuing resolution to buy themselves more time, but even that seems unlikely.

Because there are so many areas of dispute, both parties have a lot of options for assigning blame to the other side. If there is a shutdown, the Republicans will most likely opt to focus on two areas. One will be the old standby of a strong national defense. The GOP wants to cut a deal to break the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011. But the Democrats are insisting that any increase in authorized spending be split between defense and non-defense spending. The Republicans will argue that the Pentagon has been systematically underfunded ever since 2011 and that the Democrats are leaving our military in a weakened condition. They’ll argue that the Democrats are shutting down the government to protect illegal immigrants, which is also imperiling our national security.

“If the Democrats want to shut down the government because they can’t get amnesty for illegal immigrants, then they’re going to have to defend those actions to the American people,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program.

As you can see from the two Democratic senators from New Hampshire, the Democrats will never concede that a shutdown is being done to protect the Dreamers because too many of them are frightened by the rhetoric of people like Sen. Tom Cotton. So, while they will appeal to the public’s general sympathy for the Dreamers who are protected by an expiring DACA, and they will claim that they are fighting for them, if there is a shutdown they will argue that it’s about Trump’s stupid border wall. And they’ll note that Trump promised over and over again that the Mexicans would pay for his stupid border wall.

On the defense appropriations, the Democrats will counter that the Republicans just gave away all the money to millionaires with their “tax reform,” and that the budget rules are needed to control runaway deficit spending. If the caps are going to be busted, the money should go equally to the military and to domestic spending, including investments in education, health and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ratcheted up threats of a government shutdown last week by insisting on ending the long-standing, bipartisan agreement over parity for defense and non-defense spending. This principle of parity is enormously important for working families and is something that cannot be terminated. If we do not act, funding for education, child care, health care, nutrition assistance, affordable housing and other important domestic programs will be at a 40-year low as a percentage of our economy. – Sen. Bernie Sanders

These are the general outlines of the coming blame game. The Democrats will have more leverage in this fight than they had during the health care and tax battles because the Republicans need the votes of at least nine Democratic senators to pass a bill that funds the government.

Yet the White House is forcing some very unsavory choices on them. In addition to the demand for wall funding, Trump wants to tighten the rules for allowing unaccompanied minors to enter the country, put limits on family immigration preferences, and eliminate the visa lottery system that promotes diversity. This is also in the context of new draconian immigration policies, like the announcement yesterday that we will deport 200,000 Salvordorians who initially came here as refugees after the 2001 earthquakes. Without getting concessions on some of these demands, the White House may allow DACA to expire and begin deporting Dreamers. As a result, it could be that a DACA fix isn’t a part of any deal to keep the government open despite the fact that the Democrats would be breaking a pretty big promise if they make an agreement without it.

The DACA fix being discussed this month would affect only a sliver of the larger community, and the Democrats have rejected a package that would protect the “Dreamers” while cracking down on enforcement against the broader population of immigrants here illegally.

“A lot of these conditions are [a] non-starter,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), the first formerly undocumented immigrant to be elected to Congress, said last week. “The wall is certainly a non-starter.”

Theoretically, there would still be time to make a separate agreement on DACA, but the Democrats wouldn’t have the same leverage. A government shutdown usually hurts Congress more than the president, but in this case the Republicans control both Congress and the White House, and an inability to keep the government operating will probably make them look dysfunctional and incompetent. The Dreamers’ cause is popular with the public, so it might not be so easy for the Republicans to blame the Democrats’ lax immigration stance for the shutdown. This is especially true because it’s not the only issue that may result in deadlocked negotiations.

In the end, the Democrats won’t get everything they want and the eventual deal will infuriate their base. Politically, they can probably break at least even—if not come out ahead—if they allow a shutdown to take effect. The Republicans’ stances just aren’t that popular. So, whether it’s the stupid wall or deporting the Dreamers or spending more on defense and less on everyone else, the Democrats are in a strong enough position to give as good as they get. And since they’re in the minority, ultimately they’re not responsible for the shutdown. It’s up to the Republicans to win over their votes.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.