POLITICS
01/22/2018 05:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2018

The Case For The Democratic 'Cave'

It's not really a cave if you're just continuing the fight.

WASHINGTON ― After Senate Democrats voted for a three-week government funding extension Monday, Republicans and liberal progressives seemed to agree about one thing: Democrats had caved.

Senate Democrats had, after all, voted to reopen the government without a legislative fix on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, and they had essentially accepted a deal that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was willing to give Democrats on Friday ― the soft promise of a vote on a DACA bill and a three-week government funding extension, not four.

But the truth is more complex than a winners and losers post. Yes, the liberal base may be upset that Democrats took less than a DACA fix in exchange for ending a shutdown, but that’s only relevant if you actually think Democrats could have gotten a DACA bill as a result of this shutdown ― and that the shutdown wasn’t hurting Democrats at all.

Republicans were happy to claim throughout this three-day government funding lapse that Democrats had made a strategic error in blocking a government funding bill, so it’s odd that, in GOP eyes, Democrats had also made an error in ending the shutdown. How is it that a shutdown was bad for moderate Democratic senators up for reelection and that ending a shutdown is also bad for those lawmakers?

It’s also inaccurate to say Democrats didn’t get anything over the last couple of days. McConnell made stronger statements in support of an open debate on a DACA bill on both Sunday night and Monday morning, making it more difficult for him to wriggle out of not putting forward an immigration bill that has Democratic support or controlling the amendment process so that Democrats don’t have a chance to change the bill.

If ― as progressives were happy to tweet Monday ― Democrats shouldn’t trust McConnell, forcing him to make more explicit promises on the Senate floor, promises that will surely be thrown back in his face should he fail to live up to them and there is another shutdown, that isn’t to be taken for granted. And if the Senate were able to pass a bipartisan DACA bill, while also demonstrating that a more conservative DACA bill currently making its way through the House doesn’t have the votes in the Senate, they make it much easier to argue that it’s Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who are shutting down the government by not giving Democrats a vote in the House.

The Democratic position of not voting for a government funding bill until there’s a DACA deal seems much more reasonable if there’s actual legislation that’s passed the Senate and is being ignored in the House. You’d be certain to hear the words, “Give us a vote, Mr. Speaker!”

The reality of this shutdown standoff is that it’s hardly over. Democrats agreed to a continuing resolution that will keep the government open for 17 days. They took the Children’s Health Insurance Program off the negotiating table with a six-year extension of the program. And they gave up hardly any leverage to do so.

Republicans and Democrats still don’t have a spending agreement to raise caps lawmakers set in 2011. Without that agreement, the Pentagon would be forced to live with a sequestration spending number that Republicans hate. And the threat that Democrats will shut down the government without an agreement seems more serious now that they’ve actually done that.

Democrats don’t like to admit they had any part in shutting down the government. But their position was that they wouldn’t accept a government funding bill because of what wasn’t included, not what was actually in the bill, though Democrats have pointed out there are some provisions they don’t support and that funding the government through stopgap measure after stopgap measure is not a responsible way to govern.

Some of the most disappointed groups after this shutdown, understandably, are Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But a prolonged shutdown could have seriously damaged public opinion on the Dreamers. Currently, Dreamers enjoy massive support. A Washington Post-ABC poll in September revealed that 86 percent of the public supported Dreamers staying in the U.S. A long shutdown over immigration could have poisoned public opinion on the issue and driven people into their familiar partisan foxholes, as well as made it difficult for more moderate Republicans to actually negotiate a DACA bill.

“It [an unresolved shutdown] can only hurt the Dreamers and only piss off potential Republican allies,” a senior Democratic aide told HuffPost Monday, adding that protecting public opinion on Dreamers ― particularly when government shutdowns are so unpopular ― was a consideration for Democrats.

So Democrats staved off the worst effects of a government shutdown. They prevented a turn in public opinion against their party for this shutdown, as well as Dreamers. They got CHIP. They got a commitment from McConnell to bring up immigration legislation. And they gave up none of their leverage.

It may be tempting to insist that Democrats should have pressed on with the shutdown strategy until they got everything they wanted. But Congress works slowly ― barely ― until the moment that it all comes together in an instant.

Democrats took a step toward that moment.

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