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 The pursuit of a bipartisan Trump-backed DACA deal went this far only because back in September, after Trump rescinded Obama’s executive order, he signaled that he wanted to pursue a legislative fix with “Chuck and Nancy”—you know, the nice couple who happen to run the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.
Let’s also remember: The only reason Democrats came this close to a DACA deal with Trump is that two weeks ago the White House invited reporters in to watch a bipartisan DACA discussion, in order to refute reports, most prominently in Michael Wolff’s damning Fire and Fury, that Trump is losing his faculties. In that 55-minute performance, the president showed himself to be nominally capable of helming a meeting, if a little loopy. He got enthusiastic about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s suggestion that they produce a “clean DACA bill”—one that didn’t include other immigration fixes or border-security funding—until House majority leader Kevin McCarthy told him that is not the GOP’s position. He promised to keep working toward a “bill of love,” insisting he would sign any bipartisan DACA deal the group brought him. “I’ll take the heat,” he told the group.
In fact, he couldn’t even take the heat from immigration hardliners in his own White House, including chief of staff John Kelly and anti-immigrant adviser Steven Miller. When the leaders of a bipartisan DACA working group went to see Trump two days later with their proposal, Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin were blindsided: Kelly and Miller had invited anti-immigrant Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Bob Goodlatte. There was no chance of compromise. That was the infamous meeting where Trump derided some African nations as “shitholes” and whined that we should have more immigrants from Norway. That’s right: He flipped from demanding a “bill of love” to promoting a bill of racism—one that would include funding for his wall, end family reunification policies, terminate the diversity-visa lottery, (which offers opportunities to African would-be immigrants, among others), and shift entirely to “merit-based immigration,” presumably to bring us more folks from Norway.
Still, even after all that, Trump suggested that he was open to a DACA deal one more time, in a meeting over cheeseburgers with Schumer. The Democratic Senate leader offered to trade funding for Trump’s silly wall for protection for DACA kids, and he thought he was close to a deal. But John Kelly called Schumer and said his proposal had been deemed “too liberal” and so the deal was off. Over the weekend I took to referring to President Kelly and Vice President Miller, since those two men seemed to be running the show.
Now what? Democrats are supposed to be heartened by McConnell’s stated “intention” to bring a DACA bill to the floor, where it would could very well have enough votes to pass (that’s not likely to be true in the House). But we have to acknowledge: What started as a bill to allow Dreamers to stay in the country has turned, for the Republicans, into a vehicle to push through the ultraconservative, nativist version of comprehensive immigration reform—one that restricts even legal immigration, especially from countries outside Europe (and perhaps some parts of Asia). The White House is reportedly demanding that any DACA bill include wall funding and other border-security resources, an end to family-reunification immigration policies (they like to use the creepy term “chain migration,” which leaves out human beings), as well as the diversity-visa lottery.
The danger is that the next round of negotiations winds up pitting not merely DACA kids against the American-born but also DACA kids against African and other immigrants who currently benefit from the visa lottery Trump and other conservative nativists want to end. Republicans are looking to fracture the Democrats’ multiracial coalition, because, in a changing country, that’s the only way the overwhelmingly white GOP can stay afloat (well, that plus voter suppression and gerrymandering). I worry Democrats have helped them, by demoralizing their multiracial base, after a weekend when millions in the resistance joined women’s marches all over the country, at which a deal for Dreamers was an explicit demand.
So it was a tough night. Republicans want to pit elements of the Democratic coalition against each another, while Democratic leaders seemed overmatched. They might, by making bad choices, do as much to fracture their own base as the GOP has. I’m not ready to declare that they “caved,” necessarily. I just don’t see the Democratic strategy that will make February 8 look different from January 20, and keep the party from another humiliating setback. I’m going to keep looking, though.