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The complicated calculus as Democrats debate whether to shut down the government

“I don’t think it’s clear that either party has leverage.”

Senate Lawmakers Speak To Media After Weekly Policy Luncheons Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During a key immigration meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday, President Donald Trump appeared to agree with almost every policy idea put in front of him on immigration, no matter what party it came from.

With a fast-approaching government funding deadline and possible government shutdown fight on January 19 in which immigration is the biggest sticking point, Trump saying yes to both Democratic and Republican demands presents an obvious problem — the two parties have significant disagreements on what immigration reform should look like.

But underneath the policy debates, there’s a larger question: Which party holds the political leverage in this fight?

The answer is complicated.

The recent election of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) means that Senate Republicans have a razor-thin majority of 51 votes. They need 60 votes to pass a long-term spending bill. Democrats have made clear that whatever fiscal bill they pass should include a legislative fix for the young, unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers. Republicans want to pass a standalone immigration bill with increased border security. The Trump administration recently brought back the demand of a border wall, a Democratic no-go.

On paper, Democrats have the leverage; Republicans need at least nine Democratic votes in the Senate to keep the government open. But Democrats’ path to getting what they want is politically risky, especially if they decide to force a government shutdown. Things are complicated by the fact that 2018 is a high-stakes election year that already has the makings of a blue wave — something Democrats don’t want to screw up.

“I don’t think it’s clear that either party has leverage,” said Frances Lee, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who studies Congress. “It’s a politically ambiguous moment.”

Republicans could get a lot of blame for a shutdown

Republicans have typically shouldered the blame for past government shutdowns, but neither party has walked away unscathed.

The fallout from the biggest government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 was complicated; both then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton were criticized after Clinton vetoed a Republican spending bill over disagreements on spending levels.

The 2013 government shutdown was pinned squarely on conservative Republicans — particularly Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who held a long-term spending bill hostage in an attempt to defund Obamacare. Though their poll numbers plummeted in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, Republicans went on to win in a wave election during the 2014 midterms when they retook the Senate and consolidated their largest House majority since 1928.

“It’s a very tricky business to say we can pin a shutdown on one party and one party alone,” John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, said.

Since Republicans currently hold the power in all branches of government, it’s unlikely they’d escape blame if a shutdown was triggered over immigration. That’s especially because President Trump’s administration began sunsetting the DACA program in September — punting a fix to Congress. Trump has also talked openly about the possibility of shutdown, tweeting last spring, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

The president’s approval rating has been at a historic low since he entered office, and a government shutdown that he has publicly encouraged probably wouldn’t be a boost.

“A shutdown is as much a risk for (Trump) as it is for other Republicans,” Sides said. “His actions, I think, could be interpreted as contributing to it.”

But then, so could Democrats

While Republicans — particularly hardline conservatives — have been known to pull dramatic political tactics, Democrats have long tried to portray themselves as the responsible governing party.

“It would be dangerous for Democrats to use a filibuster to cause a government shutdown over DACA and immigration,” Lee said. “It looks like an extreme move to shut the government down over an issue that impacts a small minority living in the US.”

Still, Democrats have plenty of reasons to fight for immigrants. There is widespread support in the American public, including Republicans, for a long-term DACA fix. Many immigrants’ rights groups are closely aligned with the progressive grassroots movement.

And immigrants have been waiting for a fix for nearly two decades. They’ve been asked to swallow a lot of compromises over the years, and Democrats failing to secure a permanent protections for undocumented youth who have spent nearly their whole lives in the United States is unacceptable to many.

Furthermore, Democrats have been moving dramatically to the left on immigration issues in recent years, and Latino votes are key for them to capture in upcoming elections. As Vox’s Dara Lind writes:

Democrats have come to defer to organized immigration activists in a way they didn’t 10 years ago, or even during the early years of the Obama administration. Thanks in part to a change of strategy by major labor unions, whose success in organizing immigrant-heavy professions like the hospitality industry rather than relying on its traditional manufacturing base, this important component of the Democratic base has wholly embraced the idea of comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, the party has moved substantially to the left on the issue of immigration enforcement.

Democratic leadership have to walk a fine line between listening to activists and barreling towards a shutdown.

“The Democratic leadership has to balance these two things,” said University of Maryland political science professor David Karol. “In general, the party has to think about how much do we have to do for the groups in our coalition to keep them from bolting.”

Democratic lawmakers are already blaming Republicans for a possible shutdown, painting their colleagues as obstinate and unwilling to negotiate.

“President Trump has said he may need a good government shutdown to get his wall. With this demand, he seems to be heading in that direction,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the minority whip, said in a statement on Friday. “It’s outrageous that the White House would undercut months of bipartisan efforts by again trying to put its entire wish list of hardline anti-immigrant bills — plus an additional $18 billion in wall funding — on the backs of these young people.”

It was the most explicit statement that Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a key player in the immigration debate, has made so far on the possibility of a government shutdown. But he was careful to pin responsibility on the Republicans, who have been doing the exact same thing to Democrats.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) complained on the Senate floor earlier this week that Democrats were aiming too high, and not bargaining in good faith. Grassley griped that Democrats wouldn’t negotiate for anything less than a clean DREAM Act, without the border security measures the GOP wants.

“As the Democrats see it, it’s take it or leave it, their way or the highway,” Grassley said. “That isn’t good faith. That isn’t negotiation.”

The 2018 electoral stakes probably don’t matter that much — but that doesn’t stop Democrats from worrying about them

The 2018 midterms are on the horizon, and they’re sure to play into both Republican and Democratic calculations on whether or not to push a shutdown. But electorally, it probably doesn’t matter all that much, because we are still nine months out from November, Lee and Sides said.

“It’s too far out from the election for this to matter,” Lee said. “This is just January; public memory is pretty short.”

Case in point, the shutdowns in 1995-1996 and 2013 didn’t really hurt Republicans. Democrats picked up a few seats in the 1996 midterms, but Republicans retained their majority. In 2014, Republicans made huge gains, solidifying majorities in both the House and Senate and sweeping state legislatures and governors’ mansions.

The tide appears to be turning in 2018. Democrats are currently leading RealClearPolitics’ generic ballot polling average by 11.4 points, and have been in a double-digit lead in recent months. For context, the last time their polling average was this good was before the 2006 midterms, when Democrats flipped the House.

“Clearly, the energy leading into this year’s midterms (is with) the Democrats,” Sides said. “I think Republicans are much more scared than Democrats are.”

Still, the generic ballot is not ironclad; lots could happen between now and November. And even if Republicans escaped relatively unharmed from their shutdowns, Democrats are sure to be worrying about how a shutdown could impact their 2018 chances.

Activists and the left wing of the party want Democrats in Congress to hold firm and push for a deal on DACA. They’re not the only ones; the Center for American Progress Action Fund recently released a memo on behalf of its president, Jennifer Palmieri, formerly a key Obama White House and Clinton campaign staffer, echoing the same message. In the memo, Palmieri issued a call to congressional Democrats to stand strong for DREAMers, or face the consequences.

“If Democrats can’t even stand up to Trump and Republicans in defense of Dreamers —whose moral case is unassailable — they will leave a lot of progressives wondering who Democrats will fight for,” Palmieri wrote. “At that point, Latinos may not be the only constituency within the Democratic base that becomes dispirited and disengaged. If Democrats don’t try to do everything in their power to defend Dreamers, that will jeopardize Democrats’ electoral chances in 2018 and beyond.”

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