The grim shutdown battle to come

This government shutdown was tiny. The next one could be huge.

Lead congressional Democrats and Republicans.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It seems like a long time since Friday, when the government shut down. But on Monday, Senate Democrats reached an agreement with Republicans to open the government for about three weeks. They got six years of funding for the Child's Health Insurance Program, and a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on the Deferred Action for Child Immigrants (or DACA) to protect young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children (known as the DREAMers) if ongoing negotiations go nowhere. It's not much, but not nothing either.

So crisis averted? Not quite. I would bet quite a lot of money that McConnell is going to break his promise, and there will be another high-stakes confrontation in February. Democrats better be ready for a long and grim fight if and when that comes.

It's worth going over just how the shutdown happened. At first, it seemed there wouldn't be one — the Senate had ironed out a bipartisan compromise to keep the government funded and figure something out on the DREAMers and the Children's Health Insurance Program (which hasn't been funded for months), and President Trump had repeatedly promised his support for something like it.

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But the White House, apparently under the influence of extreme nativist Stephen Miller and other hard-right anti-immigrant voices, turned on a dime and began demanding a gigantic overhaul of the entire legal immigration system as part of any deal. They reportedly wanted to cut legal immigration by about half and remove many options for legal residents to bring over family members.

Nonplussed Senate Democrats, as well as five Senate Republicans (meaning that Republicans didn't even have the votes within their own caucus), refused to agree. That was simply way too much to ask in return for a DREAMer bill and a bit of money for a tiny health insurance program. If you need Democratic votes to even get to 51 in the Senate, it's only right and proper that Republicans should have to give something to get those votes.

This makes for an instructive comparison with Ted Cruz's government shutdown in 2013. That was an attempt to coerce President Obama into defunding ObamaCare — his signature policy. Obama flatly refused, the government shut down, and Republicans eventually caved.

Today, by contrast, the shutdown is driven mostly by Republican duplicity about DREAMers. They consistently say that they want to do something to help the situation, but equally consistently reject every proposed policy to do so. Occam's Razor — as well as the boiling hostility to the entire post-1965 legal immigration structure — suggests they simply do not like immigrants and want to get rid of as many of them as possible, legal or otherwise.

The DREAMers are extremely popular. Some 84 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and even 69 percent of Republicans think they should be allowed to stay in some way. Fifty-eight percent of people think they should have a path to citizenship, and another 18 percent favor a path to legal residence. Only 15 percent think they should be deported — but this seems to include most Republicans in Congress and the White House, unfortunately.

I see every reason to suspect the Republican congressional leadership — President Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell in particular — are going to keep talking out of both sides of their mouths on immigration, so as to disguise the extreme unpopularity of their actual opinions. And that means, as The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argues, Democrats ought to press them as hard as they can, to demonstrate that position with their actual votes and actions. Whatever bad happens to DREAMers, at least make Republicans completely own it. That will mean, almost certainly, another much longer government shutdown in February after this bargain expires.

Now, at the end of the day, Democrats are still a minority in the Senate and the House. Senate Republicans could simply vote tomorrow to end the filibuster, and there would be no stopping them. But at the least Democrats can make them fight to accomplish hateful acts — and so long as a few Republicans aren't fully on the ethnic purity bandwagon, perhaps even help some people out in the process. All it takes is a spine.

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