POLITICS
01/19/2018 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2018

How We Arrived At A 'Shithole' Shutdown

Trump's Jan. 11 outburst played a key role.

WASHINGTON ― Parts of the federal government were set to shut down Friday night after Republicans and Democrats in Congress couldn’t pass a funding bill, their most basic job as lawmakers.

Republicans control both the House and Senate but were adamant that a government shutdown would be Democrats’ fault, since some Democratic support was needed to get a bill through the Senate. A few Democrats did vote for the funding bill Friday night, but a few Republican senators crossed the aisle to vote against it as well.

Democrats had said they wouldn’t support a funding package that doesn’t include protections for young undocumented immigrants.

“The Democrats in the Senate are opposing a bill that they don’t oppose,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Friday before the vote. “This is purely an attempt by the Senate Democrats... to try and get a shutdown that they think this president gets blamed for.”

But apportioning blame for the shutdown drama is not so simple.

The policy problem began on Sept. 5, with President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. President Barack Obama had implemented DACA to give deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, often referred to as Dreamers.

Trump told Congress they had until March to find a solution, and structured the end of the program so most recipients would maintain their protections at least until then.

“I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” Trump said in September. He added that if Congress could not pass legislation to restore the legal status the DACA program provided, “I will revisit this issue!”

Days later, with lawmakers having been unable to pass a regular budget for years, Congress passed a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government through December.

On Sept. 13, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they had struck a deal with Trump on a bill to provide permanent legal status for Dreamers. This supposed deal would establish those protections and include money for border security, excluding funds for Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (which Mexico is supposed to pay for anyway, according to the president’s campaign promises).

Less than a month later, Trump shot down this supposed deal. He declared that no bill granting Dreamers legal status could pass unless it funded the wall and made money available to hire far more immigration and border enforcement officers. By rescinding DACA, Trump had taken a hostage to force Democrats to vote for his wall.

Recognizing that Republican leaders might not support standalone immigration legislation ― Senate Republicans filibustered such legislation in 2010, and former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) simply refused to allow a House vote on a bill the Senate passed in 2013 ― Dreamers lobbied lawmakers to include them as part of a must-pass funding bill.

Dreamers and their allies also stressed that the situation is more urgent than Trump and Republicans imply. They estimate that about 122 DACA recipients lose protections each day, putting them at risk of being detained and deported. Plus, former government officials have warned that it will take time to actually put a deal in place.

Some Democrats promised they would oppose government funding bills that omitted DACA protections, but 18 members of the caucus caved in December when the matter actually came up.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers were working to find a legislative fix. A bipartisan group led by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) began work soon after Trump rescinded DACA to find a plan that could pass the Senate. A separate bipartisan group, led by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), sprang up in the House. And Republicans put forward strictly partisan bills of their own in each chamber, both of which went far beyond the Dreamer issue and were immediately ruled dead on arrival with Democrats.

Earlier this month, Trump held a televised negotiation with congressional leaders at the White House. During the meeting, Trump said he’d support a deal if it included the following four things: protections for Dreamers; funding for a border wall; restrictions on immigration by family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents; and the elimination of a visa program designed to increase the diversity of the immigrant population.

But then, during a subsequent closed-door meeting in which Durbin and Graham laid out their group’s proposed DACA deal, Trump lashed out at proposals related to the diversity visa program.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to Washington Post reporting that has been confirmed by senators who attended the meeting. Trump was referring to African countries and said he would rather see more immigrants from Norway, a very white country in northern Europe.

The president’s “shithole” comment drew widespread condemnation, and the next day he announced there would be no deal. “The so-called bipartisan DACA deal presented yesterday to myself and a group of Republican Senators and Congressmen was a big step backwards,” Trump said in a tweet last Saturday.

This week, Republican leaders in Congress pushed a funding bill that omitted any immigration provisions.

In the House, Republican leaders tried to craft a bill as attractive to Democrats as any bill without DACA could be. What they came up with was yet another continuing resolution that would keep the government running for four weeks while also supplying six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which lapsed last year. But GOP leaders had to deal with a mutiny from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, many of whom wanted to fund the military for the rest of the fiscal year.

After Democrats indicated they wouldn’t support a Republican bill, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cut a deal with Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-S.C.) that gave Republicans enough support to pass the continuing resolution in exchange for future votes on a conservative immigration bill and a defense-only spending measure. With that agreement in hand, the House passed the four-week resolution, 230-197, with just six Democrats supporting the bill.

“I think the Democrats ought to be real careful,” Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a Freedom Caucus member, told the HuffPost Politics Podcast this week. “They’re putting people that are here illegally over our troops.” 

Republicans control only 51 seats in the Senate, and the funding bill needed 60 votes to pass, so Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needed at least nine Democrats to vote for the bill ― and probably more, since several Republicans, including Graham, had said they opposed the House bill on the grounds that it only funded the government for four weeks. Late Friday, 44 Democrats and five Republicans voted no on the stopgap measure; 45 Republicans and five Democrats voted for it. Sen. John McCain was not present for the vote.

In other words, it wasn’t just Senate Democrats who didn’t support the Republican bill to keep the government from shutting down.

Republicans argued that Democratic DACA demands were extraneous to the continuing resolution to fund the government, which was true in the sense that the immigration policy is unrelated to spending levels. But along with tax reform and military spending, immigration has easily been one of the top policy debates on Capitol Hill for months ― and it is ostensibly a shared priority of both parties. It didn’t come out of nowhere.

Another reason Republicans say the DACA provision was unnecessary was that most Dreamers won’t lose their protected status for another month and a half. (The government is currently accepting DACA renewal applications because of a court order, but the Trump administration is fighting that ruling in court.)

“DACA does not expire until March 5,” Mulvaney said. “So there’s absolutely no reason to tie these two things together right now.”

Dreamers themselves disagreed, since they’re already losing protections and are aware that Republican promises to act later on immigration aren’t always kept.

“Anyone who says that we have more time for this insane Congressional gridlock is lying,” Greisa Martinez Rosas, a Dreamer activist with United We Dream, said in a statement. “Delay means deportations.”

This article has been updated to reflect the Senate vote against the short-term funding bill late Friday.

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