New Times,
New Thinking.

23 January 2018

The Democrats ended the US government shutdown – but at what price?

Many in the party feel uncomfortable at Chuck Schumer’s willingness to play nice with Donald Trump’s party.

By Nicky Woolf

To a certain extent, it’s Newt Gingrich who brought us to the current mess in the United States. In the 1990s, when he was Republican speaker of the house, Gingrich realised that he could weaponise the government funding process and hold it hostage to demand concessions to his slash-and-burn agenda. The result was two long and costly shutdowns in 1995.

Republicans further radicalised during the Obama years, as the rising power of the Tea Party and the injections of dark money from right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Mercer family dragged the party further to the right. In 2013 they decided to shut down the government again, over their demand to gut the Affordable Care Act, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

When the GOP forced these three shutdowns, they were ruthless operators, offering only funding resolutions that would gut government programmes. During the 2013 shutdown, 800,000 federal workers were furloughed, and more than a million more went to work with no assurance that they would be paid. Republicans let this state of affairs drag on for 16 days.

Now, Democrats have demonstrated that they don’t have the stomach for that kind of brinkmanship. 

Despite Republicans holding the majority in both Houses of Congress, they don’t control the Senate by enough; continuing budgetary resolutions requires not just a simple majority in the chamber, but a supermajority of 60 votes. Democrats tried to use that as leverage to protect two causes. The first was funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a programme which had provided healthcare for millions of children, which the Trump administration had allowed to expire. The second was protection from deportation for so-called “Dreamers” – those who were brought to America as children but lack citizenship.

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At the weekend, after Congress failed to agree on funding, museums and national parks closed their gates. On Monday, federal workers were furloughed in their thousands. Federal pre-school programmes were shuttered. Payroll processing for more than a million more staff who continued to work, including soldiers on active duty, ground to a halt.

But then, unaccountably, they folded. Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, blinked after just a single work-day of shutdown. As a result, Republicans were able to pass a short-term funding bill which included money for CHIP. Yet the deal included nothing more than a non-binding verbal assurance from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that there would be a debate on immigration.

Getting CHIP funded is not nothing, and it is possible that Schumer and his allies, nervous about how the shutdown was being perceived, decided that it was enough. Protecting Dreamers is a more difficult sell in Rust Belt states. With ten senators facing upcoming re-election fights in states which voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Schumer may have made the calculation that, come November, a shutdown could prove worse for Democrats than Republicans.

Maybe Schumer also had his eye on history. Despite the hardball, the 2013 shutdown was a failure for Republicans: Obama didn’t blink, and the government was eventually reopened without Obamacare being sunk. The shutdown itself was deeply unpopular, and Republicans were largely blamed by the public. But that didn’t turn out to matter much when it came to the ballot box: the GOP went on to storm the mid-term elections the following year.

What Schumer gained for centrist colleagues in tight races in Trump-friendly states, he may have lost from his base. The left flank of his party reacted in dismay to the deal, with one group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, calling the deal “madness” and a “cave … led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats,” Reuters reported. Schumer’s willingness to sell out the Dreamers for nothing more than a promise seems craven to many, with one Democratic congressman, Chicago’s Luis Gutierrez, lamenting that it showed the party was “still not willing to go to the mat to allow people in my community to live in our country legally.” Ezra Levin, who runs the progressive activist group Indivisible, said that it was “Schumer’s job to lead and keep his caucus together to fight for progressive values, and he didn’t do it.”

This time, the party of government controls both houses of Congress, and Trump has consistently undermined his own party’s negotiations with chaotic tweeting and abrupt changes of mind. To the public eye, the Democrats already looked like the grown-ups, and many in the party think that abandoning the Dreamers was the wrong political move, not least because protecting them is actually wildly popular in polls. Schumer could, if he’d just held out, many feel, have won both. In a meeting on Monday, Politico reported, liberal Democratic senators grilled Schumer on what his plan will be if McConnell doesn’t make good on his promise – an outcome that many in the party, who loathe the Senate majority leader as Machiavellian and untrustworthy, consider very likely.

A poll on Monday showed that more people blamed Trump for the shutdown than the Democrats, 52 per cent to 43. But in the wake of the shutdown agreement, some voter groups would be forgiven for asking of the Democrats: “OK, but what have you done for me lately?” Schumer has been shown to be open to working with Trump. He was even famously photographed laughing with the President in the Oval Office after doing a deal to raise the debt ceiling in September – a difficult PR sell in an era in which many in the party want a declaration of total war. While Democrats have won important electoral victories last year in Virginia and Alabama, the chances of their re-taking the Senate in November remain dicey.

On top of that, while Schumer nervously eyes the mid-term elections in November, others already have their eye on the presidential election which follows it. It is worth noting that the senators thought to be in the running in 2020 – including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand – voted against Schumer’s deal. If the Democrats are hoping to campaign, later, on that promise being broken, then he is playing politics with the lives of thousands. In the meantime, he handed Trump the opportunity to claim a “big win”.

By caving so quickly, Schumer may have managed to look both weak and unruly at the same time. Worse, he may have exacerbated the divisions in his own party at a time when a united opposition is badly needed.

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