After nine months of unified control of government, Republicans in Congress and Donald Trump have teamed up to pass zero major pieces of legislation. Now, they may prove too incompetent to fund their own government. We may be headed for a shutdown in December—an unprecedented embarrassment for a party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The underlying risk of a shutdown is driven by GOP disunity. Republicans in both the House and Senate are too divided over governing priorities to pass appropriations legislation on their own, and even if they weren’t, they’d need Democratic votes in the Senate, where filibuster rules essentially guarantee that the next government funding bill will require at least eight Democrats to support it. But last week Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) promised to vote against any year-end spending bill that does not include a legislative solution for DREAMers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) followed suit, creating speculation that Democrats will, as a caucus, make inclusion of the DREAM Act the price of their votes.
This would be a dangerous hand to play—government shutdowns are very unpopular and whichever party the public holds responsible tends to regret its decision. But it’s a hand that is being played in a game created solely by Donald Trump, when he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017, leaving DACA recipients in limbo. Trump promised to clean up the mess he created, and then reneged on his own promise. It is for the above reasons that Democrats can and should use their leverage to make a DACA fix part of any legislation to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year.
DACA provided a two-year work permit and protection from deportation for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. Since the program was implemented in 2012, over 800,000 young undocumented Americans applied for DACA. They went on to become teachers, doctors, and lawyers. Many own cars and nearly 10 percent have become homeowners.
The Department of Homeland Security did not send out notices to DACA beneficiaries informing them the program was ending. DHS refused to extend the deadline, even for those DACA recipients in hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico and Texas. Thirty-five thousand young people have begun to lose their ability to work and will become subject to deportation. Some DACA recipients, whose permits expired between September 5th, 2017 and March 5, 2018, were able to re-apply for a new two-year permit. But the vast majority of DACA recipients will no longer be able to support their families when their work permits expire. In fact, 1,400 DACA recipients will lose their ability to work each day beginning March 5, 2018, that DACA-legislation is on hold.
The DREAM Act—which would provide a path to citizenship for young, undocumented people without criminal records, who came to the U.S as children—has wide bipartisan support. A recent poll shows that 82% of Americans and 74% of Republicans support a policy that allows DREAMers to remain in the U.S. It is not often that an issue, especially one related to immigration, has such overwhelming support, and yet the Republican leadership in Congress has refused to bring the DREAM Act to a vote.
Beyond a solution for DREAMers in the form of the DREAM Act, there is little consensus between Republicans and Democrats, and even within the Republican party. The Trump administration would like to see funding for a border wall, further militarization of the Mexico-US border, and more funding of for-profit detention centers attached to the DREAM Act. A bill that includes such measures has little support from Democrats and substantial Republican opposition as well.
The urgency to pass the DREAM Act, combined with the GOP leadership’s refusal to bring clean DREAM legislation to the floor, leaves Democrats little choice but to demand the next government funding package be amended to include provisions allowing DREAMers to live and work in the U.S. legally. There is a deadline to fund the government next month, but in a meaningful sense, there is also a deadline to pass protections for these young Americans less than six months from now.
Republicans will compare such a demand to their own tactics in 2013, when they held government funding hostage in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and were held accountable for the ensuing shutdown. But there are critical differences between what Republicans did in 2013 and what Democrats should do in the coming weeks.
First, Trump created this mess when he ended DACA, a program that was legal and working. He threw the ball to Congress tweeting, “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!” According to multiple, on-the-record accounts, he also promised to support legislation codifying protections for DREAMers before the end of the year. However, after a meeting between Senate Republicans and Trump on DACA legislation, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) told reporters, “The president made it very clear that he doesn’t want to see any DACA legislation as part of a year-end package.”
Second, in 2013, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, and it was in that chamber that the hostage takers rejected bipartisanship in favor of trying to jam Senate Democrats and Republicans with poisoned funding bills. In 2017, Democrats control neither chamber, and are simply spelling out what Republicans will have to offer them if they need Democratic votes to fund their own government.
Third, it is exceedingly unlikely that Republicans will be able to agree on a funding bill that would pass absent Democratic opposition. In 2013, the consensus funding bill was one that did not sabotage the Affordable Care Act. In 2017, the consensus funding bill will almost certainly be one that includes protections for DREAMers. And again, it will be Republican leaders who decide whether to support the consensus or plunge the government into a shutdown.
There is one plausible scenario in which Democrats might be identified as the hostage takers, and blamed for a shutdown: If House Republicans pass clean legislation, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to fund the government on a short-term basis at current funding levels, and Senate Republicans post 50 or more votes for it, but the bill fails because of a Democratic filibuster, Republicans can and will claim that Democrats are precipitating the shutdown.
But if the DREAM Act does not pass before the end of the year, and Republicans somehow rally both of their House and Senate conferences into unanimous support for a clean CR, they will be essentially funding the deportations of young Americans whom the government recently promised to protect. Democrats like Kamala Harris know this. They realize that without the DREAM Act, the country will topple off one cliff or another—a government shutdown on one side, and the expulsion of DREAMers into Trump’s deportation machine on the other. Even if Harris’ position doesn’t carry the day next month, funding the government in two or three month increments is unsustainable. If Democrats relent to pass clean, short-term CRs, they can and must revisit the DREAM Act every time the next CR expires until Republicans relent, whether for the good of the DREAMers or to fund the government on a lengthier, more considered basis.
So yes, Democrats may be playing a dangerous hand, but Trump set the rules, and the bargaining chips are young people’s lives. When the GOP controls every branch of the government, and they want to use that government to deport DREAMers, they shouldn’t expect Democrats to help them pay for it.