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Activists got Democrats to shut down the government. Can they do it again?

“We don’t see it”: Activists don’t think Democrats won the shutdown fight.

DACA Protest Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

“They caved.”


As soon as Democrats struck a deal on Monday to reopen the federal government, the statements and tweets began pouring in from progressive and immigration groups. The target of their anger was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who initially got enough Democrats (and a handful of Republicans) to vote against a short-term spending bill over the lack of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program deal on Friday.

But under Schumer’s leadership, Democrats had reversed course by midday Monday, with the majority of the caucus supporting another short-term funding bill to open the government.

“They stood up and fought; it was great,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the national activist group Indivisible. “We were behind [Schumer]. Then unilaterally to fold on Monday while getting absolutely nothing ... was absolutely shocking and baffling. It felt like a real betrayal.”

Democratic senators, of course, don’t see it that way. They believe they successfully cornered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by getting him to publicly promise an open immigration debate in the coming weeks if a deal isn’t reached by February 8.

“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 causes with the Democrats, told Vox’s Dylan Scott.

But activists and immigrant rights groups view this as the opposite of a win. Many say they wanted Democrats to secure a concrete deal, rather than settling for assurances from Republican leadership.

“We don’t see it,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, the nation’s largest DREAMer advocacy group. “The plan that they have laid out so far in terms of having a floor discussion and amendment process, all of that does not guarantee a vote and does not guarantee an outcome that’s going to save lives.”

Democrats are openly dangling the possibility of another shutdown when the next funding deadline comes around on February 8, when they believe they’ll have more leverage because the Children’s Health Insurance Program is now funded for the next six years.

That February 8 deadline is the last inflection point for Democrats before the DACA program fully sunsets in March. After that, hundreds of thousands of DREAMers will lose their legal status and be vulnerable to deportation. But can these activists convince Democrats to shut down the government again? And are they any likelier to get a deal in three weeks’ time?

“We will not take no for an answer,” Jiménez said.

Activists are already gunning for another shutdown showdown

The dynamics of an immigration deal being reached by February 8 are already looking murky. On Tuesday, Schumer pulled a previous offer of $20 billion worth of border wall funding after the Trump White House scuttled a deal.

“The wall offer’s off the table,” Schumer told reporters. A bipartisan group of 39 senators are going back to the drawing board on the parameters of an immigration deal, starting to draft their proposals on Wednesday afternoon.

It’s going to be an uphill battle. Even if senators can come to some kind of deal, there’s no guarantee it will hold in the House of Representatives. Conservative House Republicans are planning to hold House Speaker Paul Ryan to his promise not to pass immigration legislation if a majority of Republicans don’t support it, as Vox’s Tara Golshan reported.

And even if a bill cleared the House and Senate, it’s entirely unclear if Trump — famous for calling Mexicans “rapists” and labeling certain African, Central American, and Caribbean nations “shithole countries” in a closed-door meeting — would ever sign a deal legalizing hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants.

Whatever happens in the House and the White House, activists are clear that momentum for a bill must begin in the Senate. They are looking to hold Democrats to their promises again before the February deadline.

“I would like Sen. Schumer to help us help him,” Levin said. “He and other Democrats have embraced that goal; they say they want to get this done. If he accomplishes it, he deserves the credit for it. If he doesn’t, he deserves the blame.”

Though some Democrats were nervous about the political consequences of causing a shutdown, progressive groups have been clear there could also be political consequences if Democrats don’t hold firm in support of undocumented youth. Some even began calling the five red-state Democrats who unsuccessfully voted to fund the government on Friday the #DeportationCaucus on social media.

Activists are continuing to bombard Democratic senators with emails and phone calls encouraging them to push for an immigration deal. Many are also showing up to Senate offices in person. Schumer, in particular, has been a target of protests. Over the past few months, undocumented youth have been arrested for staging sit-ins in his office. More have staged protests outside the minority leader’s home in New York City.

That is likely to continue. Jiménez said more than 100 immigrant youth will be on Capitol Hill over the next few weeks having face-to-face meetings with senators to press them to come to an immigration deal that gives DREAMers a pathway to citizenship.

Acknowledging the political reality of a shutdown

The politics of government shutdowns are tricky, especially for Democrats, who want to portray themselves as the responsible governing party.

Republicans have largely shouldered the blame for past shutdowns, but centrist Democrats were nervous about being implicated in the 2018 shutdown, especially with midterm elections looming in November. In this particular fight, who had the political leverage in a shutdown fight was less clear-cut.

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

Even though Democrats (and four Republicans) technically voted against the short-term spending bill, President Donald Trump had openly called for a government shutdown in past statements and tweets.

“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.”

And at least at the beginning, it looked like Trump and Republicans were again getting the majority of the shutdown blame. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted before Friday’s vote found Americans blaming Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown by a 20-point margin. Things were less clear-cut after the shutdown occurred, 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 probably won’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,” said Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “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.

“I think that would have been a huge benefit to Democrats,” Nayak said.

Schumer’s job is to hold together a Democratic caucus that comprises liberal senators for whom the DREAM Act is a top priority, as well as moderates and red-state Democrats who are much more concerned with long-term spending priorities including funding for the opioid crisis, pensions, and community health centers.

Activists are happy with the 18 Democratic senators who voted against the CR on Friday. The list contains liberal stalwarts who have voted against short-term CRs from the beginning, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). It also includes centrists and one red-state Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

Tester was the only red-state senator to vote no on the three-week CR on Monday, but he was withholding his vote not over an immigration deal, but rather a specific piece of the Children’s Health Insurance Program funding package.

If activists are unsuccessful, what then?

The political danger isn’t so much that immigrants and their allies will switch parties and vote for Republicans politicians. Instead, it’s that activists and immigrants could stay home on Election Day, not canvassing or voting for Democratic candidates who they feel don’t represent their interests in Washington.

There’s also a chance some Democratic senators could face primary challenges if there’s a lack of an immigration deal. Currently, just one, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), is facing a primary opponent, 37-year-old progressive candidate Alison Hartson. But some groups are talking openly about more.

Faiz Shakir, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns that his group and others are engaging with the Democratic primaries.

As a national grassroots organization, Indivisible is made up of many local and state chapters. Levin said it’s up to each Indivisible chapter to decide whether to endorse sitting Democratic lawmakers in 2018 or throw their weight behind other candidates.

“Individual groups across the country are upset and disappointed” after the vote, he said. “I think they underestimate the importance of that grassroots energy for building the big blue wave they want to achieve.”

But other organizations, like the Center for American Progress Action Fund, aren’t so quick to jump to primary talk. With a blue wave starting to build, Nayak said he’s optimistic that Democrats can expand their numbers in 2018, simply based on a backlash to Trump and the GOP.

“I am still relatively optimistic for a few reasons in that the biggest driver of vote choice is dislike for the other party,” he said. “I’m hopeful that people will still be energized and it will be a huge advantage. It partly depends on what happens to DREAMers.”

One thing is clear: Progressive groups are fully aligned with immigration activists in this fight, and will be applying pressure to Democrats with a unified voice.

“The entire progressive movement is behind the lives of these young people. People will not accept no for an answer and continue pushing,” said Jiménez.

Correction: This story originally said the ACLU would be endorsing candidates in the Democratic primary. They will not.