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Democrats Appear To Have Lost The DACA Fight For Now

The Democrats thought that December was the month they could use the threat of a government shutdown to force congressional Republicans to pass a law that offers protections from deportation and other benefits for some young undocumented immigrants.

But the passage this month of such a law, along the lines of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, now looks very unlikely. Why? Because at least right now, Democrats appear not to have much leverage in terms of forcing the GOP to accept a DACA-style bill, in part because a group of House Republicans who strongly oppose such a provision may have more sway. It looks like Congress will fund the government and avoid a shutdown in the next few weeks — without addressing DACA.

How did the GOP gain leverage in the shutdown fight?

Republicans in the House finally unified.

As I described last week, the past few major government funding bills, both with Barack Obama in office and now with President Trump, have been approved with bipartisan votes in the House and the Senate. Conservatives in the House had balked at voting for these bills because they didn’t include huge spending cuts, so the measures would not have had nearly enough votes to pass in the House had Democrats not joined some Republicans in backing them.

After a bipartisan spending bill passed in September, providing funding until Dec. 8, Democrats on Capitol Hill started talking about using their votes on government funding bills as leverage. Their thinking was that if they were going to prevent a government shutdown when Republicans were in charge of the House, Senate and presidency (and would therefore presumably be blamed if the government closed up shop), Democrats should get one of their big priorities in exchange. Party activists and some lawmakers had centered on a DACA-style bill as what they really wanted. (It was not clear if this provision would be tucked into the spending bill or just that GOP leaders would agree to take it up as a part of a formal agreement in order to get the spending approved.)

When the two-week funding bill put forward last week didn’t include a DACA provision, Democrats in the House tried this new strategy: Instead of backing the measure, which kept federal funding at similar levels as the bill from September did, 175 of the 189 House Democrats voted against it. But 221 of 239 Republicans supported this one, including House Freedom Caucus leaders Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, members who had voted against past spending bills.

Funding is now scheduled to run out on Dec. 22, so another big deadline looms. But what happened last week suggests that Republicans in the House are likely to succeed in passing another spending bill along partisan lines.

Why didn’t Democrats in the Senate stop the funding extension?

Democrats in the Senate could have blocked the funding bill, since government spending bills can be filibustered (meaning you need 60 votes for this kind of legislation, and Republicans only have 52 seats right now). But then Democrats could have been blamed directly for a government shutdown, and polls suggest that the public may not have responded favorably to a shutdown over DACA.

The House was the real place for Democrats to gain leverage by a combination of Republicans and Democrats opposing the spending legislation. That did not happen, so most Senate Democrats backed the funding bill, and it was approved in the Senate by an 81-14 vote.

Why did the House conservatives change their tactics?

Essentially the Freedom Caucus and other conservative House members have moved from an offensive position (demanding cuts) to a more defensive one. Conservatives in the House are suggesting that they will vote for future spending bills even if they do not include major cuts as long as they also don’t include the priorities of either Democrats or more liberal Republicans, such as a DACA-type law or provisions that are designed to help the functioning of the Obamacare marketplaces. In effect, the heightened Democratic demands moved recalcitrant conservatives in the House to join with their party instead of risking a split that might allow Democrats to reach some of their goals.

What does this mean in terms of a shutdown?

Well, last week’s vote suggests enough Republican unity that while a shutdown around Dec. 22 is possible, it is fairly unlikely. I would expect Senate Democrats to continue to be wary of forcing a government shutdown over DACA. So look for more spending bills to pass with basically only Republicans in House and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate.

What then for DACA?

If the Democrats can’t force Republicans to accept DACA legislation in this government funding process, they will have lost a big opportunity. Under the policy Trump announced in September, DACA protections that expire after March 6 cannot be renewed. Congress in effect still has two months to adopt some new policy. But without the leverage of a potential government shutdown, Republicans are likely to demand provisions that Democrats strongly oppose, like funding for Trump’s proposed border wall, as part of any bill that would include a DACA-style law.

So DACA is not dead. But the monthslong debate about its future — which has left its more than 600,000 beneficiaries in limbo — is likely to extend past December.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.