Within minutes of Chuck Schumer’s speech announcing that he and Mitch McConnell had reached a deal to end the brief 2018 government shutdown, progressives on Twitter were voicing their displeasure with the compromise. Democratic demands for an extension of the DACA program was the main sticking point in negotiations, and the agreement between Schumer and McConnell included neither a solution or even an immediate vote on DACA. Instead, the agreement re-opened the government, funded the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years, and included a commitment from McConnell to schedule a vote on DACA by February 8th.
The outrage from the left wasn’t entirely unpredictable, nor was it entirely unwarranted. Deporting hundreds of thousands of people who were brought here as children and, in many cases, have been here virtually their entire lives, is an inhumane and morally bankrupt policy. What should be a non-partisan effort to protect longtime residents has instead become a bargaining chip for McConnell and a political cause for immigration hardliners, who have predictably maligned Dreamers as criminals, economic burdens, and security threats.
However, the moral imperative to find a solution to this issue doesn’t mean Schumer was wrong to agree to the deal. It kept the door open for a DACA fix and may have actually improved the chances that that happens. The agreement with McConnell wasn’t a resounding Democratic victory, but it wasn’t a clear defeat, and had included some positive aspects.
For starters, the agreement included six years of funding for CHIP, another popular program that the GOP was ransoming for political leverage. Although there was more focus on DACA in media coverage of the shutdown, securing money for CHIP was an urgent need. Funding expired for CHIP four months ago and, although the program was able to continue operating with emergency appropriations and surplus funds, 27 states were projected to exhaust funds by the end of March, and some had started sending out letters warning of possible benefit reductions. Given that CHIP provides health insurance for nearly nine million children in the U.S., it was imperative that long-term funding be secured as soon as possible, and Schumer’s deal with McConnell accomplished that.
DACA, of course, is also an urgent issue, particularly to the 700,000 people who are trying to avoid having their lives uprooted. However, the sense of urgency for Congress may have been impacted by a court decision on January 9th that temporarily protected DACA recipients from deportation and allowed some to submit applications to renew their status. The legal implications of the case aren’t entirely clear, but at the very least, it could buy some time for Democrats by offering tenuous legal protections for Dreamers while a legislative solution is hammered out.
Many people on the left still aren’t happy the Democrats didn’t hold out longer to try to force a deal, but it’s not clear that a holdout would’ve been an effective strategy. Maybe the long-term political cost of the shutdown would have caused the GOP to buckle, but the first three days didn’t suggest that was the case. Trump and the Republicans were taking more of the blame in public opinion polls, but there seemed to be some evidence (namely the PPP poll over the shutdown weekend) that the disparity had narrowed. Although there were limited polls on who was to blame, it’s safe to say the Democrats weren’t scoring a resounding victory in the ridiculous and endlessly discussed Shutdown Blame Game.
While this enormously stupid exercise in non-governance is mostly an eye-roll worthy example of Washington nonsense, the GOP argument in this absurd contest is important. The GOP’s chosen message on the shutdown was that the Democrats were favoring illegal immigrants over children’s health care, military funding, and a functioning government. This was an effective message for the Republican base, and polls suggested that the public at large was skeptical about whether DACA was worth a government shutdown. The GOP framing, however, consistently emphasized that DACA recipients were illegal immigrants. That’s a bit unfair since they were brought here as children, but these kinds of talking points pose the risk of poisoning the DACA debate.
There are plenty of Republicans who want a massive reduction in both legal and illegal immigration, but there are also members of the Republican caucus who oppose deporting the Dreamers. Lindsey Graham sponsored a DACA bill in September that was co-sponsored by Lisa Murkowski and Jeff Flake, and other Republicans in both Houses have endorsed similar protective measures in the past.
However, by putting the Dreamers in the middle of a contentious debate that is framed as an attempt by Democrats to protect “illegal immigrants,” it becomes far harder for Republicans to hold that position. Throughout Trump’s term, the Republicans have shown they aren’t willing to risk the ire of Trump or the GOP base for good policy or high principles. A bitter political fight and prolonged shutdown would likely harden the Republican base against compromise and make a DACA fix less likely as pro-DACA Republicans abandoned their positions. The deal Schumer struck mitigates that risk and opens the door for negotiations to continue in a less politically charged environment.
Even if it is frustrating Congress has once again failed to protect Dreamers, Schumer likely saw that a prolonged shutdown might not increase the chances of a solution and took a deal that funded CHIP and ended the shutdown. CHIP is a win on health care, and reopening the government is good news for the economy, as shutdowns costs an estimated $2 billion in lost economic output every week and act as a drag on growth.
Overall, the deal didn’t amount to a huge win for the Democrats, but it seemed like a reasonable approach if the Republicans are going to continue to block a DACA fix. There’s no guarantee that McConnell won’t continue to hold Dreamers hostage in the Senate, or that immigration hardliners in the House won’t block a fix, but hopefully the political costs, and perhaps some sense of decency, will compel them to accept a deal.