In the government shutdown standoff, Democrats have all the leverage

If Democrats can hold their ground, they might just be able to force Republicans to slink back to the negotiating table

The U.S. Capitol framed
(Image credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Well good morning, America! I hope you aren't planning any visits to national parks today (or if you are, it would be best if you don't need to use the restroom). Because the suicidal Republican Congress couldn't pass a short-term spending deal or deliver a broader compromise to their clueless president, the government has shut down for the first time since 2013. And if Democrats can stand their ground during what is likely to be a noisy, confusing, high-stakes, and potentially lengthy standoff, they might just be able to force Republicans to slink back to the negotiating table and accept half of what was on offer last night.

President Trump and his congressional allies have sought ludicrously in recent days to blame the shutdown on Democrats, even though he and his party are in full control of the federal government and are responsible for this standoff by cruelly ending the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program for DREAMers, failing to fund the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and working with precisely zero urgency. As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said on Twitter, "Republicans set multiple fires that they cannot put out."

Instead of providing water to their self-immolating counterparts, Democrats have rightly decided to let them burn. The politics and morality line up seamlessly. Despite theatrically cancelling what would have been his 39th weekend jaunt to a Trump-branded property and summoning Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to the White House yesterday, the president clearly prefers sending an endless series of tweets accusing the 'Dems' of hating the military over calling for his allies to pass the compromise legislation that already exists. He is incapable of mustering the political courage to get anything done.

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The president's party, which is already staring down an epic and richly deserved repudiation in November, can ill afford to get blamed for yet another episode of government dysfunction. That means Democrats have maximum leverage, and they have thus far succeeded in not kicking it away. The polling is unambiguous: A Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday found that respondents would blame Republicans for the shutdown by a 20-point margin. The public is not buying the sad GOP spin that Democrats are willing to sacrifice CHIP for the DREAMers. Memories are short, but not non-existent, and most people will remember that it is Republicans who have decided, month after month after month, not to fund CHIP so that they could focus their full malignant energy on their donor appreciation act.

With Republicans badly divided over both immigration and the general direction of spending, they will ultimately need Democratic votes in both the House and Senate to achieve a long-term spending deal. To make matters worse for the GOP, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) admitted on Wednesday that he has no idea what the president's position is on a bipartisan immigration compromise should such a thing happen to land on his desk. Senate Republicans also lacked the votes to pass even the party-line, short-term spending resolution that cleared the House, which failed to get even 50 members of McConnell's caucus on board last night.

Overall, Democrats have been unusually unified since Trump took office, and the party's leaders deserve enormous credit for keeping their entire caucus glued together, with no defections during the most important showdowns over health care and taxes.

But the bipartisan legislation worked out by Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and others is, beyond securing a path to citizenship for DREAMers, a nightmarish giveaway to nativists and immigration hardliners. While we don't know exactly what happened inside those negotiations, there is some evidence that Durbin and other Democrats went far beyond what their colleagues were willing to stomach. They definitely can't go any further, and in some ways they are lucky that Republicans were too stupid to put the legislation on the floor to see if the most liberal Democrats, particularly presidential hopefuls like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), would actually vote for it.

The shutdown highlights the gross dysfunction, bad faith, and incompetence of congressional Republicans. After a remarkably unproductive legislative year in 2017 in which they spent most of their time covering up the president's crimes and misdemeanors, Republicans are providing fresh evidence that the party would be basically incapable of governing the country even if their margins in both chambers were substantially increased. Whose genius idea was it to play dress-up hostage crisis with two of the most popular programs in the country anyway? How did they think this was going to end?

As Brian Beutler notes, Republicans have impolitely declined many opportunities to provide the DREAMers a path to citizenship and have allowed their most bloodthirsty extremists to paint the entire party into its worst political corner in 10 years. With Americans favoring the Democratic side of the DACA debate by a whopping 52 points, the GOP basically has no endgame here. Either they pass the Senate compromise, they pass a clean DREAM Act and long-term funding for CHIP, or they perform an experiment in indefinite anarchy that probably will not end well for them at all. Voters are unlikely to care in November about a 10-day government shutdown. But if the impasse stretches into weeks or months and the economy begins to falter, you can bet that panicked Republicans will come crawling back.

And that's where Democrats will really be able to twist the knife. Here's what they should say: The compromise that Chuck and Nancy offered you, the one that gave the president most of what he wanted and asked for and that you tossed in the trash? That's a dead letter. These are our terms. You can sign right here.

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