The harsh anti-Democratic rhetoric, complete with the hoary stage-prop of empty seats for the two congressional Democratic leaders, that the president and his congressional allies delivered at a White House appearance yesterday, was apparently not just a one-off stunt. Today there are reports that Republicans are mulling a maneuver designed to tempt Democrats into threatening (or even causing) a government shutdown over immigration policy.
After Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer boycotted a Tuesday afternoon White House negotiating session on government funding, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began hashing out a plan to pass a short-term spending bill to fund the government into January instead of funding it until before Christmas as expected. The measure would not include a fix for so-called Dreamers, something Democrats have demanded be part of any spending bill.
The idea is to avoid an intense spending fight before the end of the year that might interfere with the final maneuvering over a tax bill, and/or push Republicans into concessions they will later regret. But it would be advanced in hopes of getting Democrats to fight over whether they should deny votes to pass the stopgap measure out of fidelity to the Dreamers who are expecting relief from Trump’s delayed ban on exempting them from deportation. If Democrats cave, it will expose their promises of a hard-line posture as hollow, angering immigration activists. If they shut down the government on a single issue in opposing a short-term stopgap spending bill, maybe they’ll get the blame and weaken their hand in the broader spending negotiations.
This strategem has some limitations. For one thing, it is unclear there’s anything Democrats can do that will get the public to blame them for a government shutdown, rather than the party that controls Congress and the White House. Schumer and Pelosi going on national TV to announce “We want a government shutdown” might not even get it done. For another, Democrats can probably convince immigration reform activists that demanding a solution for Dreamers in early January is not materially different from demanding one in late December (the delay in Trump’s repeal of protections extends until March), so why go to the mats over a short-term bill in early December? Republicans can only go so far in delaying the real spending negotiations; their own conservatives are frantic to get an agreement to waive “caps” on defense spending, and Republicans have as many impatient constituencies wanting stuff in an omnibus spending bill as do Democrats.
More than likely all this gambit will accomplish is to buy Republicans a couple of extra weeks to figure out what they actually want and are actually willing to accept in spending negotiations that would simply be shifted into early January. In the meantime, unless Democrats accept the shutdown bait, those empty chairs between Trump and his House and Senate leaders can remain safely empty.