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The real reason the Senate is taking 2 doomed votes to end the shutdown

The Senate doesn’t have the votes to reopen the government, but the votes are happening anyway. Here’s why.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in January 2019.
Alex Wong/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.

The Senate will take two votes Thursday to reopen the federal government and end the longest shutdown in history. Both votes are expected to fail. The shutdown will continue.

The pageantry of failed floor votes has become one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s calling cards in the Senate over the past few years. They’ve proven a potent tool to defuse awkward standoffs and to navigate stalemates. It used to be that a failed bill on the Senate floor signaled weak leadership, but McConnell has used them to his tactical advantage in a highly polarized Washington.

McConnell has used this gambit before in high-pressure situations. Some Republican lobbyists in town have called it a “show them a body” strategy: holding votes you know will fail in order to break the impasse over a given issue.

As Vox reported during the contentious health care debate:

Observers in Washington think the Senate is preparing to take a failed vote that would bring a seven-year quest to repeal and replace Obamacare to a spectacular but definitive end.

It’s the “show them a body” strategy.

“I think the destination is already set. But what’s the path?” one Republican health care lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, told me. “They have to be able to show the electorate a body, to say that they tried and failed.”

Now is a logical time for McConnell to call this play. Four weeks into the shutdown, Senate Republicans have been unwilling to move anything without Trump’s $5 billion for the border wall attached, and Democratic leaders are making no headway in their talks with the president. Democrats have been beating up McConnell for not allowing a vote to reopen the government. Now they’re going to get one — even if it won’t have the desired effect.

Failed votes aren’t exactly productive legislating, but they are still useful for Senate leadership because they give the appearance of work being done and force a reset once a legislative path is blocked.

What are the votes the Senate is about to take?

McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer negotiated a deal this week to vote on two proposals Thursday:

  1. President Trump’s proposal he announced Saturday, which would fund the government while also providing billions of dollars for border security and temporary protections for DACA recipients.
  2. A temporary government funding bill to fund the government at existing levels — with no immigration strings attached — which would reopen the government until February 8. A corresponding version of this bill has already been passed by the Democratic House.

Both bills would need 60 votes to advance. But there likely won’t be enough Republicans joining Democrats to pass a clean bill, and there are few Democrats willing to back Trump’s wall.

So what’s the point? Senators will get a public opportunity to release their frustrations by voting to open the government — and McConnell will have shown Democratic leaders and President Trump that neither course has the necessary support in the Senate right now.

Politico Playbook explained the objective of the dueling failed votes like this: “This is a pressure-valve release, of sorts.” It is not actually intended to end the shutdown.

McConnell has “showed them a body” before

We saw the same drama play out twice before, once on Obamacare repeal in 2017 and once during the earlier government shutdown over DACA and the wall last January.

During that first instance, the Obamacare repeal debate was already clearly in trouble. Yet McConnell kept moving toward a vote, despite having no clear path to getting 50 votes (that bill was operating under special rules that only required a bare majority) for any one plan. He seemed set on holding a vote, even if all it would show is that none of the existing repeal bills could pass.

The eventual vote went almost according to plan, though McConnell came closer to passing a health care bill out of the Senate than most people expected. Over a few days, the Senate took failed votes on a repeal-and-replace plan, a clean repeal bill, and a “skinny” repeal bill. The last one nearly managed to pass — McConnell having cleverly proven that none of the other bills had the necessary support, leaving the “skinny” bill as the only viable alternative — but John McCain stopped it with his infamous thumbs-down.

The strategy led to that spectacular flameout on the Senate floor, but it also added a note of finality to the months-long health care debate. McConnell and the rest of the Senate moved on to tax reform in the following months.

The same story played out a few months later. Senate Democrats shut down the government in January 2018 to try to force Trump to negotiate on a permanent fix for DACA recipients, whose legal status was at risk due to the administration. The president proved to be an unreliable negotiator, but Democrats still wanted some kind of concession in order to agree to reopen the government.

What they ended up getting was another “show them the body” moment. McConnell agreed not to bring up any specific immigration bill but rather to hold an “open and fair” floor debate on immigration as long as Democrats didn’t shut down the government again. So in early February, four varying immigration bills were put up for a vote. Each one ended up failing.

Once again, the Senate is preparing to take doomed votes on a big issue

The ploy had served McConnell’s purposes. The government reopened that January. The president was protected from an embarrassing comeuppance if his own plan had failed while a more migrant-friendly version passed. Both sides realized they didn’t actually have enough support for their positions to do anything productive on immigration, so they just moved on — until the latest immigration standoff led to yet another shutdown, one that still hasn’t been resolved.

Now we are set to do the same thing on Thursday. Senators will get to vote, but if both spending plans fail as expected, President Trump will be shielded from needing to issue a veto that keeps the government shut down. The votes won’t resolve the shutdown, in other words, but they might defuse the tension for a few days and give Republicans a chance to regroup.

It might sound strange, but these days, it’s just how the Senate works.