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Yes, Democrats Get Something Out of the Shutdown Deal

Progressives are upset the Democrats gave in to Republican demands so quickly, but they had their reasons.

by Harry Cheadle
Jan 22 2018, 9:52pm

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

Well, that was fast. After a long-standing dispute over immigration turned into a shutdown that closed the federal government this weekend, Senate Democrats decided they didn't really like that very much and agreed to a deal. In exchange for giving Republicans the 60 votes they needed to fund the government through February 8, Democrats extracted a promise from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he wouldn't block a vote on DACA, the Obama-era policy rescinded by Donald Trump that has allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children to stay in the country legally.

The compromise is expected to pass the House—though Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi opposes it, she won't try to whip other Democrats into voting against it, and Republicans don't need any Democratic votes in the lower chamber of Congress anyway.

Most of the instant reaction on Twitter in the wake of the vote was about how utterly hosed the Democrats got. Conservatives were rejoicing, while progressives seemed demoralized and angry—once again, some inveighed, establishment liberals in Congress had sold out, or just looked weak. But while this deal will likely go down as a "win" for Republicans, the Democrats did get tangible gains out of the nascent deal.

Let's go through them one by one:

1. The Government Won't Be Closed Any Longer

This sounds stupid—wasn't the whole point of the shutdown to force the Republicans to agree to a compromise on DACA? So haven't the Democrats tossed away their leverage by deciding to open the government again without a deal? Sure, to some extent, but it's worth remembering that for Democrats, unlike many Republicans, the government is worth keeping open for its own sake. And not just because it validates their ideological fondness for the state helping the poor: A shutdown stalls scientific research and could have resulted in people not getting their tax refunds for a while, for instance.

Previous shutdowns have been quarterbacked by anti-government ideologues like Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz, whose world views aligned nicely with shuttering federal agencies anyway. But Democrats don't come to Washington, DC, to break government; they believe that government can help people. The prospect of furloughing government workers and wreaking havoc on the bureaucracy may have made Democratic politicians queasy, even if they weren't worried about being blamed for it.


2. Kids Got Healthcare Funding

For months, Congress has been putting off renewing the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), a popular and important government program that as of 2016 provided 8.9 million kids with access to much-needed medical care. House Republicans had passed a bill that funded CHIP while cutting other healthcare programs, but Democrats opposed it, and it never got anywhere in the Senate; Democrats also opposed last week's House bill that funded CHIP and kept the government open because it didn't do anything about their DACA demands.

Monday's deal falls way short of what Democrats hoped to get out of a shutdown fight. But it does fund CHIP for six years, which is good news for all the families relying on the program. Not only does that provide real-world benefits for people, but from Democrats' perspective it erodes a particularly nasty Republican line of attack:

3. They Will Get the Chance to Have the Same Fight Again Soon

A lot of people are angry Democrats made a deal with McConnell because they're convinced the slippery majority leader will simply break his promise and never hold a vote on DACA. But if McConnell backs out of that deal, it seems likely Democrats will kick up a fuss and refuse to pass another short-term spending bill. Under this scenario, on February 8 we'll end up back where we started, only kids' healthcare will be locked in already and the debate will be somewhat simplified.

Or McConnell will agree to hold a DACA vote, a bill will pass out of the Senate, and the process will likely get held up by the House, where a bipartisan immigration compromise was killed by hardline conservatives in 2013 (after being killed multiple times in the George W. Bush era). The last week hasn't altered the political landscape when it comes to DACA: Though the policy is extremely popular in national polls, there are enough anti-immigration voices in the House GOP (and the Trump administration) that it's very difficult to see how a clean DACA bill—or even a compromise of the sort that Trump recently rejected—gets turned into law. If Trump himself demanded House conservatives accept a deal, maybe they would. But Trump doesn't seem to know what he wants.

4. Democrats Got Their Base Angry at Them

A majority of Senate Democrats voted for the deal. The ones that didn't were true-blue liberals (like Oregon's Ron Wyden), clearly worried about a primary challenge (like California's Dianne Feinstein), or on the shortlist of potential 2020 presidential candidates (like New York's Kirsten Gillibrand or New Jersey's Cory Booker). That indicates Democrats know this deal will enrage their base. In the short term, that will mean some angry tweets and phone calls. In the longer term, the effects are unclear.

Before the deal was reached, Politico's Michael Grunwald wrote about the perils of one side of a shutdown fight winning too lopsidedly—when there's obvious winners and losers, the losers tend to plot their revenge, making the next battle that much bloodier. Grunwald predicted that if Democrats took McConnell's deal, "liberal activists will demand a harder line next time around." That means that Democrats may face even demands to blow the government up if a DACA bill is stalled by either McConnell or House conservatives. Progressives will likely point to Trump's promise to "come up with an answer for DACA" and demand that Democrats hold him to that, or else force Republicans to admit that they want to deport 790,000 people who have been in the US since they were children.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the mostly moderate Democrats who voted to end the shutdown will endure plenty of heat for this deal—they already are. But it remains to be seen whether angry progressives will pay Democratic politicians back by refusing to vote for them in this year's midterms, a move that would only help Republicans. It seems more likely that an enraged, engaged base kicks up some primary challenges, but doesn't stay home on Election Day. The bottom line is that Democrats can't force Republicans to pass DACA into law if the GOP refuses to do so. All they can do is try to kick them out of power.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.