Democrats Officially Lost the Shutdown Fight

Chucked it up. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

They caved.

Ever since Senate Democrats helped reopen the government Monday afternoon — having won nothing from their three-day shutdown save a heartfelt promise from Mitch “my word is as good as pyrite” McConnell — blue America has been debating two distinct, but overlapping, questions:

Was the Democrats’ apparent surrender actually a partial victory?

Should the party have kept the government shuttered for longer?

It’s now clear that the answers to these queries are no and probably not, respectively.

The case for believing that Democrats won their speedy shutdown rested on (superficially) plausible premises. Republicans had previously insisted that there would be no new funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) until a broader budget deal was reached. But the continuing resolution that ended the shutdown funded CHIP for six years. Thus, Democrats had secured the power to withhold support for a budget deal until Republicans caved on the Dreamer issue — without jeopardizing children’s health care. This substantive and strategic victory — combined with McConnell’s public promise to bring an immigration bill to the Senate floor — meant that Democrats hadn’t just preserved their leverage in negotiations, but enhanced it. If McConnell didn’t sign on to a Dreamer deal by the time government funding ran out (once again) in mid-February, Democrats would be in excellent position to sustain a prolonged shutdown: McConnell’s broken promise would give their cause a clear rationale, and the financial health of CHIP would strengthen their resolve.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats confirmed that this was all wishful spinning. As Politico reports:

Senate Democrats are willing to drop their demand that relief for Dreamers be tied to any long-term budget agreement — a potential boost for spending talks, but one that could face opposition from their House counterparts.

The shift comes in response to the deal struck between Senate leaders Monday to reopen the government and begin debate on an immigration bill next month…“We’re viewing [immigration and spending] on separate terms because they are on separate paths,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “procedural concession means we’ve got a deadline and a process,” Durbin added. “That to me is a significant step forward. It’s not everything I wanted, that’s for sure, but it’s a step forward.”

So: Senate Democrats aren’t just unwilling to sustain a second shutdown next month — they’re not even capable of sustaining the demand that any budget agreement include relief for Dreamers until then.

This is not how a party recalibrates after winning a tactical battle.

The simple truth is that Democrats brought their shutdown to an abrupt end because they realized they couldn’t win it. Ten members of Chuck Schumer’s caucus are running for reelection this November in states Trump won; two others represent Virginia, where the lion’s share of furloughed federal workers live. Unless their shutdown immediately won overwhelming popular support — or Republican contrition — Senate Democrats simply weren’t prepared to stand their ground. And their shutdown did not immediately win either of those things. As Slate’s Jim Newell reports:

As each side made their arguments in recent days, Republicans had the more straightforward one—Democrats were responsible for the shutdown because they filibustered a funding bill in order to secure something else. A DACA fix is popular; shutting down the government over one is much less so, especially in many of the states Senate Democrats are trying to hold in November. The polling was beginning to gravitate in Republicans’ favor…There is no compelling evidence that rejecting McConnell’s offer would have resulted in a better outcome for Democrats. Polling would have drifted further to Republicans’ side, and McConnell would have waited patiently to accept Schumer’s unconditional surrender.

The upshot of all this is plain: Schumer was (probably) right to end the shutdown, but wrong to begin it. The Minority Leader showed McConnell his losing hand. Now, it’s the GOP’s round to win.

It’s still possible that House Democrats could trigger a shutdown next month. The emerging budget deal has little to offer the far-right Freedom Caucus. The essence of the agreement is that the GOP gets higher military spending and the Democrats get higher domestic spending. It’s unclear how many House conservatives are still interested in pretending to care about the deficit. But if there are a couple dozen, Paul Ryan will need some Democratic help to get a budget out of the chamber. And Nancy Pelosi & Co. aren’t impressed by McConnell’s “procedural concessions.”

Nevertheless, for the moment, it looks like Republicans will be able to decouple immigration from the budget. If Schumer had retained the credibility of the shutdown threat for a bit longer, his caucus might be in a stronger position. But at end the of the day, the reality is that Democrats don’t have the votes in Congress — or support from the public — to force an immigration deal through total obstruction, and Republicans were likely to discern that eventually.

With Democrats unwilling to seek leverage for the Dreamers through acts of radical disruption, that task may now fall to immigration activists and organizers, who are far less sensitive to concerns about Heidi Heitkamp’s internal polling.

Democrats Officially Lost the Shutdown Fight