People Aren’t Used to Seeing the Democrats With So Much Leverage

It’s beginning to look more and more like we might be headed toward another partial government shutdown on Friday, as congressional negotiators are at an impasse. The Democrats are offering a pittance of extra funding ($2 billion rather than the House’s original number of $1.3 billion), but they’re also making a new demand. They want to cap the number of beds Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has to house detainees at 16,500 in an effort to force the administration to focus only on people who represent some kind of criminal threat.

The congressional Republicans are tearing their hair out over this not so much on the merits, but because they see it as something Stephen Miller could use to prevent Trump from agreeing to a deal.

Senior Republican aides said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and his leadership team were frustrated with the Democrats because they believed they had persuaded Mr. Trump to agree to a package for border security improvements that consisted mostly of repairs and extensions to existing barriers. Their major concern now, people close to the process said, is that Stephen Miller, the president’s hard-line adviser on immigration, would convince him that accepting a compromise on detention beds would be a humiliation that would cost him with his base.

This shows how little appetite there is among Republicans on Capitol Hill for another shutdown. Their congressional leaders are no doubt worried that a humiliating deal could cost them with their base too, but they still want the deal because the alternative would be worse.

It’s still feasible to pass another short-term extension by Friday to buy a little extra time. Presumably, Trump could be convinced to sign it. It’s not clear what the extra time might purchase for the GOP.

The Democrats really have no reason not to be implacable. They are far more willing to let the government shut down again than the Republicans, and their incentive to divide their own caucus and base is nil.

The Republicans are trying to fight back by arguing that the Democrats are opposed to detaining criminals, and that might be a winning argument if there were truly willing to test it. The problem is that they’re not willing to test it.

It’s not the best ground on which to take a stand in any case because the Democrats’ basic position is that 16,500 beds are plenty if you focus on detaining criminals instead of innocent children who you have wrenched from their parents. It seems to me that the GOP couldn’t hope to fight that battle to more than a political standstill. And that won’t be good enough for them because the status quo has them losing on border issues across the board.

Maybe people just aren’t accustomed to seeing the Democrats take a stand. Maybe they’re shocked to see the Democrats negotiate by making ever-increasing demands rather than offering ever-increasing concessions. But this is really a case in which the Dems offered to pay ten bucks and their follow-up offer is five. If you push them a little further, maybe they’ll give two dollars and ask for a free car wash.

Sometimes you have to do things like this to teach people a lesson. When you don’t have any leverage, you don’t get to take a hard line. The Republicans have zero leverage in these negotiations, and they’re actually in some pretty dire need of humiliation.

On their far left flank, the Democrats have people who want to abolish ICE entirely, but the current offer only limits administration’s ability to operate concentration camps filled with children and asylum seekers. It’s actually a moderate position within the caucus. Maybe the Republican base will be furious or maybe the Dems have just carved out this ground to fight over because retreating a bit from a position on their own turf still leaves them on their turf. Normally, our political battles are fought entirely on Republican soil.

The ultimate win for the Dems would be forcing the congressional Republicans to override Trump’s veto in order to keep the government open. They have absolutely no reason to go easy on Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. Their time in the barrel should include a trip over Niagara Falls.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at