WASHINGTON — The government shutdown is putting House Democrats in a bind. They engineered the single biggest seat gain in 40 years last fall, largely on the promise to fight President Donald Trump’s agenda at every turn, and there’s no bigger agenda item for Trump than the border wall.
Still, some newly seated freshmen and senior Democrats say they’re willing to do a deal with Trump and trade wall funding for one of their priorities, such as saving the hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from deportation.
“If I had the opportunity to vote for some sort of a deal, I would,” freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) told VICE News on the day he was sworn in at the Capitol.
That’s putting them in direct conflict with more-progressive members of the House who want Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to draw a line in the sand. As Trump takes to primetime TV Tuesday to make his case to the American public that the border wall is necessary, the blue wall he’s facing contains two types of Democrats: those willing to do a deal, and those who are not.
Last week, after negotiations broke down once again, one of Trump’s top allies in Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), started pressuring Pelosi to put DACA on the table, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity said the president is on board.
Border wall for DACA
Van Drew said he can envision supporting a compromise if it includes border security beyond a wall, like combating illegal drug and child trafficking, and a fix for DACA and other undocumented workers, while also reforming how the nation handles immigration applications from every nation, not just Mexico.
“I think if we work on the border security, in my opinion, the president would be willing to work on some of these other issues,” Van Drew said.
It’s not just the newbies. While the ACLU and other liberal and progressive groups have asked Democratic leaders to not give an inch, several other Democrats from across the spectrum of the party also say they’re open to using this shutdown to get a deal that includes those DACA recipients, or Dreamers.
“I think it’s a great suggestion,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told VICE News at the Capitol. “Comprehensive immigration reform has been something that this country should have addressed years ago, so if this provides us with an opportunity to get that done, I think that’s a good thing.”
While Johnson believes Trump’s initial demand for $5 billion for the wall is a “waste of money,” he said that calculation becomes more complicated if they’re presented with a straight-up deal for $5 billion in wall funding in exchange for DACA.
“I think that’s something a lot of members would be torn about,” Johnson said.
A border wall-for-DACA deal might have more takers in the Democratic caucus if they hadn’t been burned by Trump before.
“I’m totally for using DACA as an opportunity. The problem is, last time they kept moving the goalposts”
About this time last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Trump he’d trade $25 billion in border funding for a permanent resolution to the status of DACA recipients. The president rejected it, and the government partially shut down for three days.
“I’m totally for using DACA as an opportunity. The problem is, last time they kept moving the goalposts,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said.
"We don't trust them"
Even as some Democrats are open to a deal with Trump, it’s hard to find anyone in the party who trusts him, especially after Senate Republicans unanimously supported a bill to fund the government ahead of the holiday season only to have Trump back off his administration’s assurances to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.
“The fact is, we don’t trust them,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leader of the House progressive caucus. “We don’t trust anything that they have said.”
For other Democrats the wall itself is their line in the sand, even as they desperately want to find a resolution for the Dreamers.
“If we’re against the wall, we’re against the wall”
“I think we’re all open, but the thing is there are some of us that no matter what – I don’t think you mix immigration [reform] for the wall,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told VICE News at the Capitol.
“If we’re against the wall, we’re against the wall,” he said.
Cuellar’s open to dropping a significant amount of money on more Border Patrol agents and on increasing security features at the southern border and other ports of entry where the most illegal drugs, like fentanyl, come in. But he argues if the Democratic Party gives in to Trump in their first week, or even their first month, in power it will make the Trump administration think, dangerously, that a government shutdown gives them a large amount of leverage.
“If we give in now, what’s going to happen is that he knows, ‘Oh, all I have to do is threaten to shut down the government or shut down the government – they’re going to give in on that,’” Cuellar said.
Trump and his top officials, who are desperately trying to save face with his base by demanding the wall funding, have indicated they'd accept various funding levels for their coveted wall — ranging from $2.1 to $5.7 billion on this go-around. But exact figures are now basically white noise.
“This isn’t about the money,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who is openly eyeing a presidential bid in 2020, told VICE News at the Capitol. “That’s a lot of money, but that’s not the issue. The issue, I think, is the symbolism of the wall and what it would mean to give in on that.”
Other Democrats are open to an exchange too, but the longer the shutdown lingers, the lower the amount they’ll even entertain giving Trump.
“I think we all want to see DACA protections, so I think there’s an opportunity to, if they give something — it’s called negotiation, right?” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) told VICE News on his way to the organizational meeting of the new Congress last week. “Give us a chance to protect the Dreamers; maybe we can give something on border security.”
Bera said he can envision a deal where Democrats give Trump $1.6 billion or so in exchange for DACA.
That’s why he said Pelosi and other Democratic leaders shouldn’t take DACA completely off the table.
“I absolutely want to protect the Dreamers, so let’s see what they come back with”
“I absolutely want to protect the Dreamers, so let’s see what they come back with,” Bera continued. “Let’s listen. And I hope he listens as well.”
Open the government first
For other Democrats from immigrant-rich communities, DACA remains a top priority, but they’re still with Pelosi and won’t even consider the prospect of a negotiation while roughly 25 percent of the government remains shuttered.
“We’re happy to negotiate, but let’s get the government going,” freshman Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “Let’s get people back to work, and then we’ll sit down and talk about all these other things that we want to get done at the same time.”
The 77-year-old came to the House after serving as former-President Bill Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services, so she’s witnessed the pain, questions and bewilderment felt by government workers in shutdowns before. That’s why her line in the sand for any big immigration package is flipping on the government’s lights.
“I’d love to do a bigger package. I’d love to do immigration reform – that’s important to me. I want to take care of the DACA kids – there are thousands in my district alone, but we’ve got to get the government open,” she said.
The more Trump doubles down on his demand for a wall without offering any real concessions, the more it seems to unite the Democratic Party. They have power now and want to use it.
“I mean, if he had any leverage, it was when he controlled the House, the Senate and the White House,” Jayapal said. “But he’s going to have to understand that he doesn’t control the House anymore.”
Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, flanked by the other Democratic leaders in Congress, addresses the media after meeting with Republicans and President Donald Trump in an attempt to work out a compromise to end the partial government shutdown, January 4, 2019. (Photo by Michael Candelori/NurPhoto via Getty Images)