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Senate Democrats’ decision to reopen the government, explained

What Senate Democrats got — and didn’t get — to end the shutdown.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Senate Democrats relented in their filibuster of the government spending bill on Monday, paving the way for the federal government to reopen as soon as Tuesday.

In agreeing to break the impasse after a three-day shutdown, Democrats are banking that they have successfully pigeonholed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell into opening an immigration debate in the coming weeks and that an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote for an immigration bill would put pressure on the House and White House. They are already warning that if their demands aren’t met, another government shutdown could happen on February 8, when the three-week short-term funding bill runs out. And next time they won’t have Republicans dangling a six-year funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program over their heads.

They have skeptics within their own ranks — and a number of activists are no doubt furious that Democrats capitulated so quickly after taking the dramatic step to shut down the government in a fight for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they were kids.

But several Senate Democrats told me they believe McConnell’s public pledges on the Senate floor to move an immigration bill.

“I think he’s made his commitments so publicly, so unequivocally, it would be very difficult for him to try to find a way out of meeting that commitment,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats and voted on a procedural motion to reopen the government, told me.

Even some of the Democratic senators who still oppose the spending bill believe McConnell would be bound by his public statements.

“I understand people are worried he broke his word to a few of his members,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who opposed the deal to end the shutdown, told me. “But it is something different to make a promise on the floor of the Senate to dozens of members rather than one or two.”

The short-term deal sets up another showdown on February 8. Democrats are betting that with the popular CHIP program off the table, they will have more leverage and, with McConnell’s promise in hand, sturdier ground from which to fight next time.

But they might have to be willing to shut down the government again to force the issue. Democrats didn’t get what they were seeking in agreeing to reopen the federal government — but they are hoping they’re better positioned for the next round of this fight.

Democrats didn’t get exactly what they wanted, but they think they have McConnell locked in

The government shut down in the first place because Democrats don’t trust Republican leaders or, especially, President Trump to follow through on a permanent solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Programs, which protects nearly 700,000 people brought to the United States as children and which the Trump administration said it would end in March.

McConnell had previously said any bill would need the White House’s support before he’d bring it to the Senate floor. Trump, most infamously in a meeting in which he referred to certain countries as “shitholes,” has been an unreliable negotiator in the DACA talks, however, spooking Democrats.

On the Senate floor Sunday night and Monday morning, the Republican leader said that if no immigration deal is reached before February 8, when the current spending bill expires, he would initiate a floor debate with “a level playing field at the outset.”

That public pronouncement, and the apparent commitment to an open amendment process, won over the majority of Senate Democrats and their leader, Chuck Schumer. They are also relying on a group of Republican senators who also want an immigration deal and helped negotiate the arrangement that ended the shutdown.

“The basis of all this is the conversations we’ve had with each other over the weekend, which have been better conversations than we’ve seen in a long time and more substantive and more directed,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told reporters. “Those conversations setting up the foundation for Schumer’s conversations with McConnell mean we think he’s gonna do it.”

But let’s be clear: This isn’t what Democrats originally wanted when the shutdown started. Their base wanted a vote on an immigration bill. Democrats wanted firm commitments from the House and the president that the Senate bill would move through the other chamber and be signed by Trump.

They didn’t get anything close to that. That has left some in their ranks disillusioned, particularly if the immigration debate becomes disconnected from the spending talks. Moving an immigration bill with a spending bill was supposed to be the minority’s plan to make sure House Republicans didn’t block it.

“It was a great disappointment to me,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who opposed the procedural vote, said.

Asked if she trusts McConnell to follow through, she added: “Chuck Schumer trusts him. I haven’t been party to that discussion, so I really can’t comment. But the strategy was to keep it affixed to a must-pass vehicle because there was great worry that the House wouldn’t pass it. The leadership did it this way; they must know something I don’t.”

Democrats are betting that passing an immigration bill will put pressure on the House and Trump

Instead, many Senate Democrats are slightly refining their strategy. They believe that if McConnell keeps his promise and the Senate passes a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support, that would put the onus on House Republicans to acquiesce or take the blame this time for failing to negotiate.

It’s a risky ploy, given how intransigent the hardline conservatives have been on immigration. But the minority has calculated that it’s the best move they have, rather than risk a shutdown dragging out and Republicans continuing to bludgeon them for refusing to approve a six-year CHIP extension.

Congress, and Republican leadership, had failed to make CHIP a priority since October, when its long-term funding expired, but pulled it out at this opportune moment when Democrats were threatening a shutdown over DACA.

So Democrats are agreeing to fund CHIP and reopen the government and are recalibrating their DACA strategy: Pass a bipartisan Senate bill and force the House and White House to the table.

“If we have a bill that gets broad bipartisan support in the Senate, that sends a pretty strong signal to the House that this is something that can pass,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) told reporters.

Rather than pit children against DREAMers, as much of the GOP’s messaging over the three-day shutdown did, Democrats seem to think they’ll have a cleaner narrative next time if Republicans waffle on DACA and hundreds of thousands of people are at risk.

“I think it’s not impossible for us to get to not only 60 votes, but beyond 60 votes,” King told me. “If that happens, that puts tremendous pressure on the president and on the House to act on this.”

“Plus, do they really want to start deporting third-grade teachers on March 5?” he added. “I don’t think so.”

Of course, in 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform plan and House Republicans never acted. It’s not at all clear that this time will be different, though the Senate Democrats who voted for Monday’s spending bill are arguing it is.

“We do have a deadline here, March 5,” Peters said. “These young people who will be losing work permits and will be in really rough shape on March 5 — that’s really a pretty hard deadline for everybody to look at. If you don’t support some type of bipartisan solution to this program, you’re going to have folks with serious disruptions to their life.”

Another government shutdown could be in the cards if the deal falls through

In a way, the tepid deal to reopen the government Monday was a retreat for both parties back to their corners. Republicans didn’t actually yield much on DACA, other than promising to open a floor debate. Democrats didn’t get much more than Mitch McConnell’s word that they could soon move an immigration bill.

It portends a very similar fight come February 8, when the new spending bill will expire. The main difference will be that CHIP, a popular program that covers 9 million kids, will no longer be a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

In a way, that is a detriment to the deal in the eyes of those who opposed it: Democrats didn’t meaningfully improve their position, depending on how much weight you give to CHIP.

“My worry is this is a never-ending cycle, that we’re back again in a few weeks with another crisis on our hands,” Murphy told reporters.

But Democrats will, in theory, have another opportunity to shut down the government in early February if they aren’t satisfied with McConnell and his follow-through on the commitments he made to get the government reopened this week. The deal’s backers were not quite committing to another shutdown, but they would have the chance.

“I’m not gonna speculate to what actions are going to be taken, but certainly people would be very upset if he does not keep the commitments he made to the American people on the floor of the Senate,” Peters told me.

And while the shutdown-ending deal did split Senate Democrats in a way, its opponents weren’t throwing bombs against their comrades. They were instead already preaching unity with another shutdown standoff just a few weeks away.

“We need to move forward united to hold accountable the Republican leadership for that promise and make sure that that promise is kept,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told reporters.

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