By the time Democrats acknowledged their relative political impotence and provided the votes in the Senate to reopen the government on Monday, they didn’t have great options. Like a lot of progressives—and 16 Democratic senators, including all the leading 2020 presidential possibilities—I thought they should have continued to stand for the so-called Dreamers, because Donald Trump (or is it Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell?) is going to continue playing Lucy with the football, snatching away potential DACA deals at the last minute.
Instead, the Senate voted 81-18 for a bill that restored low-income children’s health insurance for six years (but at a lower rate of funding) and opened the government, while McConnell stated his “intention” to bring a DACA bill to the Senate floor by February 8, the next funding deadline. The House followed. But nothing is likely to change before that date—and, in fact, the Democrats’ standing could erode. That would be disastrous for the 700,000 young people who benefited from President Obama’s executive order deferring deportation for children brought to this country without documents by their parents.
Congressional Democrats, and a handful of Republican DACA allies, have less than three weeks to figure out how this story ends differently next time. Otherwise, a population the size of the city of Seattle faces deportation from the only country most of them have ever known. So far I haven’t heard anyone describe an endgame that much different from where we wound up on Monday.
How did we get here? The pursuit of a bipartisan Trump-backed DACA deal went this far only because back in September, after Trump rescinded Obama’s executive order, he signaled that he wanted to pursue a legislative fix with “Chuck and Nancy”—you know, the nice couple who happen to run the Democratic caucus in the Senate and House, respectively. The needy and unstable president wants to be liked, even by Schumer and Pelosi. But it turns out he wants to maintain a hard line on immigration—even legal immigration—and hold tight to his nativist base even more. The president’s fleeting bout with reason led Schumer and Pelosi to provide Democratic votes to keep the government open with continuing resolutions when funding ran out in September and December, to the chagrin of some DACA advocates. But the January 20 deadline was supposed to be the last one, the line in the sand, the final chance for a deal. Otherwise, this time Democrats would shut the government down.
And they did. For a weekend. What changed? Almost nothing—except maybe Democrats gained some clarity about how little standing they have and learned that the president is a wobbly, untrustworthy negotiating partner. Yes, the deal provides the Child Health Insurance Program six years of funding, but without resources for crucial community health centers (which serve about 40 percent of CHIP kids). Also: That shouldn’t be seen as a concession to Democrats, since CHIP has been a bipartisan project since Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch teamed up to create it in 1997. But at least the deal means Democrats can no longer be accused of neglecting CHIP kids while fighting for “illegal immigrants”—though if there’s another shutdown, they’ll be accused of favoring “illegals” over “real” Americans, especially those in the military. Even though almost 1,000 dreamers serve in the military.