Donald Trump’s widely reported and confirmed comments during immigration negotiations denouncing policies that invited people from “shithole countries” into the U.S. have without question increased the odds of a government shutdown. The distasteful remark roiled sensitive negotiations over immigration linked to spending bill that needs to be passed by January 19 to avert a shutdown.
But it created an even more fundamental shift in the dynamics of the spending bill negotiations. Democratic votes will be needed to get any deal through Congress — particularly the Senate where 60 votes will be necessary to avoid a filibuster. It’s generally assumed that all things being equal, a government shutdown would mostly be blamed on Republicans as the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress. This has given Democrats considerable leverage in the negotiations.
But up until now, Democrats have been reluctant to use that leverage to insist on protections for Dreamers unless it was part of some broader agreement. Shutting down the government strictly over an immigration policy dispute might not place Democrats in the best light, given the popularity of “border enforcement” and the relative unpopularity of “amnesty” among many voters Democrats are targeting, particularly in the white working class. That’s an important reason that Senate Democrats did not go to the mats for Dreamers before the last two stopgap spending deals were cut, despite promises to make a revival of DACA a condition for supporting any sort of deal.
But now, inevitably, Trump would at least share the blame, and could get nearly all the blame, for an immigration-triggered shutdown, thanks to his nasty, racist rhetoric and his reckless demolition of a deal with Congress that appeared to be within sight. With Americans being so generally ambiguous about the tradeoffs between bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and discouraging more from crossing the borders, it doesn’t take much to shift sentiments for and against each party’s position. Now it’s Trump and Republicans who may be behind the eight ball.
So Democrats may no longer have to choose between good general election politics and fidelity to Dreamers (and to “base” Democrats itching for confrontations with Trump) in deciding how to proceed in the final stage of spending negotiations. They may now be much more willing to risk a shutdown, and much less fearful that they, rather than the nasty man in the White House, will get blamed if that happens.
Meanwhile, whatever their polls tell them about the merits of this or that position on immigration, Republicans could squarely take the rap for an unpopular shutdown as the party that is supposed to be governing the country but cannot even govern the foul mouth of their leader. Since the GOP’s congressional leadership is already struggling with defense hawks who could undermine a spending deal that doesn’t meet their demands for larger and more extended Pentagon funding, the arithmetic of keeping the federal government open could prove too difficult to work out with only days remaining until things go kablooey on January 19. Perhaps they can get one more short-term stopgap spending agreement while the furor over Trump’s remarks dies down. But there’s no guarantee he won’t say something horrid again. That risk is part of the price Republicans will continue to pay for bending the knee to their president in exchange for his signature on the tax and budget legislation and the executive orders killing generations of health, environmental, labor, and safety regulations their donors and ideologues want and need. They’ll never be safe from his loose lips and his Twitter feed.