Liberal activists and some congressional Democrats want the party to oppose any government funding bill that does not address DACA — even if that leads to a government shutdown. But the party can’t actually block a funding bill unless basically all the Senate Democrats are on board. And it doesn’t look like they are.
Negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats are ongoing on both immigration policy and government funding, and a compromise on one or both issues could be announced at any point. But for now, the basic dynamic is that current government funding expires on Jan. 19 — this Friday. And Democrats, in exchange for backing the government funding bill, want Republicans and President Trump to agree to create some kind of law along the lines of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered work permits and protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Most Democratic members of Congress voted against two short-term funding bills in December because they did not include a DACA-style provision. If Republican leaders this week write another temporary funding bill to avert a government shutdown that does not address DACA, as is expected, an even larger bloc of Democrats is likely to oppose this provision.
But remember, Republicans have a huge majority in the House. So the Democratic opposition there is somewhat irrelevant. What really matters is the Senate, where Democrats have actual power to block legislation. Since the funding bill can be filibustered, 60 votes are needed for it to pass, and there are only 51 GOP senators. In other words, Democrats can block the funding bill if 41 of their 49-member caucus opposes it, since Republicans need at least nine more votes.
So here’s the breakdown: 28 Democrats currently in the Senate, along with independent but Democrat-leaning Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, opposed government funding without a DACA provision in late December. We can’t know for sure that they’ll do so again, but I think that’s likely. Interestingly, three of the 10 Democrats running this November in states Trump won in 2016 (Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey) took the liberal stance here, voting against the funding. (My colleague Nate Silver’s recent analysis suggests that Baldwin, Brown and Casey have better chances of winning reelection than most other Dems in Trump states this year, so that may give them more political freedom.) So that would be 29 of 41 “no” votes.
The other 7 Senate Democrats running for reelection this year in red states (Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Florida’s Bill Nelson, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow and Montana’s Jon Tester) voted for government funding in late December without a DACA measure. I think these members are unlikely to move toward opposing any bill that does not address DACA. Why? These members are not only electorally vulnerable, but the pro-DACA position may not appeal to them as much because all but Nelson are in states with Latino populations well below the national share of Americans (18 percent) who are Latino.
That leaves 13 wild cards. Liberal activists need at least 12 of these members to oppose the spending bill if it does not address DACA.
Two Senate Democrats have not voted on this issue before: Alabama’s newly elected Doug Jones, who is not up for reelection till 2020, and Minnesota’s Tina Smith, who was appointed to replace Al Franken and must win a special election this November to keep her seat. These are two difficult votes for the liberal side: Jones is representing a state that Trump won by 28 percentage points in 2016; Smith must face voters in a state Hillary Clinton carried by just 1.5 percentage points. (Franken had more leeway to hold out for a DACA provision than Smith because he wouldn’t have been running for reelection this November.)
The other 11 Senate Democrats who voted for the short-term government funding bills without the immigration addition include 10 members from states Clinton won in 2016: Delaware’s Tom Carper and Chris Coons; New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen; Virginia’s Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; Vermont’s Pat Leahy; and New Mexico’s Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as another independent, Maine’s Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats. Michigan’s Gary Peters is from a state where Trump won, but is not up for reelection until 2020.
In theory, party activists could move them to take a more aggressive stance on DACA since they aren’t that electorally vulnerable. But I suspect that many in this group of 11 — Udall has said as much — simply do not like the idea of government shutdowns, even in service of Democratic goals. Also, while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has voted with the more liberal bloc to oppose government funding without a DACA provision, there is little evidence he is organizing a unified movement against such bills. (In contrast, he implored Senate Democrats last year to band together in opposition to the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare.)
As you might have expected, the main bloc of Democrats avoiding a huge fight over DACA are red-state Dems up for reelection this year. If only those seven voted for the bill, a shutdown could happen this week. But the more likely outcome is that several Democrats from blue states who have expressed concern about the shutdown path join with the red-state bloc for some kind of temporary funding bill.
So as things stand, don’t expect a government shutdown on Friday or after. But if, say, Chris Coons, Doug Jones and Joe Manchin all declare they are not backing another government funding bill that does not address DACA, then consider canceling your plans to visit a national park.
This wariness from Senate Democrats about demanding DACA relief as part of a government funding bill raises two important questions: If the Democrats don’t have the votes this week to sustain a shutdown over DACA, even amid the controversy over Trump’s racist comments at a White House meeting, will they ever? And if blocking government funding over DACA is not actually a realistic strategy for Democrats, as it appears, does that severely weaken their ability to get an immigration bill adopted that reflects their policy preferences?
There has been a lot of talk about the Democratic “resistance” and the party’s strong stances against Trump and for undocumented immigrants. I suspect this week’s votes will show a Democratic Party very opposed to Trump and his immigration policies but not quite ready for the most aggressive tactics available for resisting Republicans and the president.