Originally published The Hill
Democrats are backing away from a potential floor fight over “Dreamers,” marking a shift in field tactics from earlier this year as they prepare to do battle with Republicans next week over a major government funding bill.
January’s brief government shutdown stemmed from Democrats insisting on adding language to a short-term spending package that would have protected from deportation immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, often referred to as Dreamers.
They later acknowledge, privately, that the standoff didn’t help and may even have imperiled vulnerable Democrats running for reelection in red states like Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.
This time around, Democrats say they have no plans to include similar protective language in December’s must-pass spending bill.
Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) — who in January were two of the biggest opponents of spending legislation that didn’t help Dreamers — say they won’t necessarily vote against a year-end spending deal that doesn’t address immigration reform.
“I’m not going to speculate on that,” Booker said Thursday when asked whether he would vote against a funding bill that doesn’t include language protecting immigrants at risk of deportation following President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Booker, however, said, “I’m one of the those people standing strong about the need to get this DACA thing done, so I’m going to continue to fight to get it into this bill.”
Harris said, “I’m going to evaluate it.”
“Obviously DACA is very important to me, but I’m not prepared to give you a definite answer on that yet,” she added.
The two senators, who are now considered potential 2020 White House contenders, are striking a softer tone than last year, when they declared they wouldn’t vote for a spending bill that doesn’t protect Dreamers.
"I want solutions to protect these kids, and won’t vote for a spending bill that doesn’t include one. It’s an issue of basic decency and morality," Booker said in November 2017.
Harris declared a year ago: “I will not vote for an end-of-year spending bill until we are clear about what we are going to do to protect and take care of our DACA young people.”
That rhetoric culminated in a three-day government shutdown in January, which some Senate Democrats saw as a tactical mistake in a year when they had to defend 10 incumbents in states that voted for Trump in 2016.
Democrats at the time extracted a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to have a week of debate on immigration reform in February, but it failed to yield a bill with enough support to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.
A CNN–SSRS poll from January found that a majority of Americans favored keeping the government funded over finding a way to reauthorize the DACA program.
The lesson Democrats took from January’s bruising fight is that they got blamed for the shutdown.
As a result, they’re maneuvering to make sure Trump gets the blame for any partial government shutdown next month. They’ve dropped demands to add immigration provisions and instead have offered a neutral short-term funding bill to allow negotiations to continue.
“This is the president trying to manufacture a shutdown to fire up his base,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Thursday. “Make no mistake, the president is the only person who holds the ultimate responsibility for a government shutdown. He can decide if we’re going to have one or not have one.”
Schumer said Democrats will support the Senate’s bipartisan Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, which includes $1.6 billion for border security, or a stopgap spending resolution to keep open the federal agencies that aren’t already funded through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We could avoid a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution for the Department of Homeland Security. I think it should be for a whole year,” he said, noting that would provide $1.3 billion for border security on top of the $1.3 billion Congress allocated for border security last year.
Congress must pass seven spending bills before Dec. 8 to avoid shuttering those federal agencies.
Democrats feel confident that Trump will get the blame for a shutdown if he refuses to sign a spending package that falls short of the $5 billion he has demanded for his border wall.
They see the unresolved fate of Dreamers, as well as beneficiaries of temporary protected status, as a good issue for their candidates in the 2020 presidential election, when the Senate battleground map will be more favorable for Democrats than it was this year.
While Republicans said after the Nov. 6 midterm elections that they hoped to reach a deal trading border wall funding for DACA protections, meaningful negotiations have failed to materialize.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a leading proponent of legislation to protect Dreamers, said he has not received any serious overtures from Republicans.
“Not a word has been spoken. There’s nothing from the White House to even suggest that’s on the table,” Durbin said, adding he was not aware of any immigration-related language being added to the spending bill other than extra funding for border security.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said Thursday that he preferred to keep immigration-related measures out of the bill.
“I’d rather keep it off,” he said. “I’d rather to keep as much legislation off as I can because ultimately it clouds the whole picture.”