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Activists are laying off the shutdown pressure

“People saw what happens when we walk off the cliff.”

Dream Act Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

With the deadline for another short-term funding bill looming at the end of this week, there seems to be far less of an appetite for another government shutdown on Capitol Hill.

“People saw what happens when we walk off the cliff,” said a senior congressional staffer with knowledge of immigration negotiations.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promising to put an immigration bill on the Senate floor in the coming weeks as long as a short-term funding bill passes on February 8, House and Senate Democrats alike are wary of voting against the bill and heading down a path toward a shutdown again. Some say it’s not the best way to impress upon the American public the plight of undocumented immigrants.

A chorus of voices pressured Senate Democrats to stand firm and vote against any spending bill that didn’t include a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects young undocumented immigrants. But looking back, many agree that Democrats weren’t prepared for what came next.

“Everyone was pressuring them to take that step,” the staffer said. “Afterward, we were in a place where it would have behooved us to have thought a bit longer about what the message was.”

The shifting immigration message

When the Senate shut down the government on January 19 and quickly voted to reopen it a few days later, progressive groups and immigration rights activists’ response was unequivocal: Senate Democrats had caved. They had accepted McConnell’s promise to allow an open immigration debate if a deal wasn’t reached by February 8 — but who could say if McConnell would actually deliver? The base pressured Democrats to hold McConnell accountable to his promise, even if that meant threatening another shutdown in February.

Now many are striking a decidedly different tone. Though they are still keeping up the pressure with demonstrations and rallies, activists are temporarily holding their shutdown fire. Instead, they’re waiting to see what comes out of the floor debate after February 8.

Calls for another shutdown could grow next month, as Congress runs up against the President Donald Trump’s March 5 deadline ending the DACA program, leaving hundreds of thousands of immigrants vulnerable to deportation.

“It didn’t make sense for us to be calling for that,” said Angel Padilla, policy director for Indivisible, a national activist group. “In March, we could be in a different scenario.”

Even though Democrats want to go nowhere near a shutdown this week, President Trump seemed bullish about the idea.

“If we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” he told lawmakers on Tuesday. “We’ll do a shutdown and it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”

What an immigration deal might look like

Activists aren’t pushing a shutdown as much this month because McConnell already promised an open floor debate on an immigration bill. What exactly that bill will look like is still unclear.

There are a number of more fully fleshed-out immigration proposals floating around the House and Senate this week. They can easily be divided into two groups: bipartisan House and Senate bills that Democrats can get behind, and conservative bills that are nonstarters for Democrats and activists alike.

Bipartisan proposals include:

  • The United and Securing America (USA) Act, introduced by Reps. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA), which would give DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship and provide a boost to border security.
  • A bill proposed by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John McCain (R-AZ), which is very similar to the USA Act. Coons and McCain are open to the White House’s border wall funding request, but they want to make sure Congress has oversight on how wall funding is spent. (McCain is currently not in Washington, as he’s undergoing treatment for a severe form of brain cancer.)
  • The Graham-Durbin proposal, a framework for an immigration deal developed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Dick Durbin (R-IL), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). This is a broader framework for an immigration deal, but there is no bill text yet.

Conservative proposals include:

  • The Goodlatte bill, drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which includes heavy border security, mandatory verification of workers, and beefed-up interior immigration enforcement.
  • The RAISE Act, by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), which heavily restricts legal immigration to the United States in exchange for a DACA fix.

McConnell still controls which bill will make it to the floor, and activists are afraid that the substance of a final bill could include conservative elements. There is a fear that moderate Democrats and Republicans, weary of the continuing immigration fight, will more easily agree to proposals that their left-wing base doesn’t want.

Activists are therefore pushing a “clean” DREAM Act, one that provides a pathway to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers without concessions on a border wall or ending legal immigration programs. This option is unlikely to make it to the floor, but activists want to hammer this point home in the final weeks before immigration debate starts in the Senate.

“That’s my concern with some of these bad immigration bills. You attach it to a spending bill and then dare Democrats to vote it down,” Padilla said. “That and an open debate on immigration with a Republican-led Congress are my biggest fears right now on immigration.”

Padilla and others say the fact that Senate Democrats went back on last month’s shutdown so quickly shows a worrisome lack of spine for future immigration fights. With that outcome, activists are now shifting their strategy away from Democratic leadership and more toward lobbying Democratic and Republican moderates alike, trying to get them to throw their weight behind a bipartisan immigration deal.

“At the same time we’re going after Democrats, we’re going after Republicans,” said Greisa Martinez, a DACA recipient who is the advocacy director for United We Dream, the nation’s largest advocacy group for DREAMers.

Despite the polarized political messaging on immigration, the vast majority of the American public supports a permanent fix for the DACA program and wants the young immigrants it protects to be able to stay in the United States, according to recent polling.

A recent CBS poll found that 87 percent of Americans said DREAMers should be allowed to stay in the US as long as they continue to work or go to school.

“The beauty of this moment is that a large movement of the Democratic and Republican Party base is on our side,” Martinez said. “There will be electoral consequences; all of them will be measured against, ‘Did you pass the DREAM Act, yes or no?’”

The political reality of the first shutdown was tricky. The reality of a second one is trickier.

At least at the beginning of last month’s shutdown, it looked like Trump and Republicans were getting the majority of the blame. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted before the January 19 vote that led to the shutdown found Americans blaming Trump and congressional Republicans by a 20-point margin.

Things were less clear-cut after the shutdown began, with an NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll finding that Democratic voters were mostly blaming Trump for the shutdown, while Republicans voters blamed Democrats in Congress. Independent voters were also more likely to blame Trump over congressional Democrats, by a 17-point margin, 48 percent to 31 percent.

Because the shutdown only lasted three days (two of which were over a weekend), it didn’t become much of a political issue. But progressive groups say they think Trump would have shouldered more of the blame if Democrats had held the line.

“The longer it went on, the more painful it would have been to Trump and the more Trump would have felt he had to do something,” Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told Vox last month. “The shutdown was resolved so quickly that the real source of the problem and the real political pain was not brought to bear on the president.”

Nayak believes if the shutdown had gone on longer, it would have begun to reflect on the dysfunction of Trump’s White House and the president’s inability to bring Republicans and Democrats together to strike a deal.

Now that Senate Democrats gave up their leverage in a matter of three days, Republicans may not believe them the next time, if they threaten another government shutdown in the months ahead.

“You only have leverage if you’re willing to use it and if the other side believes you’re going to use it,” Padilla said.