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Party Unity Hasn’t Cracked Under The Weight Of The Shutdown

Both congressional Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated strong party unity during the partial government shutdown, which has now gone on for 26 days and is the longest shutdown in U.S. history. This level of party discipline echoes what happened in 2017 and 2018, suggesting the midterms didn’t change the broader dynamics in Washington. Intense partisan unity is probably good for President Trump and congressional Democrats politically, but it will likely hurt congressional Republicans. And it’s a really bad sign for the American public.

We don’t know yet if Trump will be able to build the border wall that is at the center of the shutdown. At some point in the next few days or weeks, maybe Trump or congressional Republicans will approve a budget bill without wall funding — or perhaps Democrats will give in and approve some wall funds. Alternatively, Trump could declare a national emergency and attempt to use funds from other federal projects for the wall, thereby potentially sidestepping the impasse with Congress. (Such a move would likely be challenged in court, and the president does not seem inclined to take this step.)

But no matter how the shutdown ends, both parties have already shown what could be described as fierce party unity over the last three weeks, if you’re in a generous mood — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, as an intense refusal to compromise. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer haven’t given Trump the more than $5 billion he wants for the wall, even though that is a fairly small amount of money in the U.S. government’s $4 trillion budget. And Pelosi and Schumer have been able to hold the line because there is a not a critical mass of congressional Democrats publicly clamoring for a compromise. On Tuesday, essentially looking to work around Pelosi and Schumer, Trump invited a few moderate House Democrats to a lunch meeting on the shutdown. The members all declined the invitation, a sign of alliance with their party’s leaders.

The Democrats’ resolve marks a stark contrast from the brief shutdown last January, when they blocked government funding and forced a shutdown because Trump and congressional Republicans would not embrace legislation along the lines of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by the Obama administration. Some congressional Democrats were wary of the shutdown, and the party’s leaders moved quickly to end it.

On the GOP side, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have aligned themselves with Trump throughout the shutdown. McConnell has declined to allow votes on government funding bills that do not include money for the wall, even though he brought such legislation up for a vote in December and it passed in a voice vote (which means no formal vote was cast, though no senator formally objected to the legislation.) McConnell has been able to hold the line in part because only a few Republicans in the chamber have publicly suggested the Senate GOP should break with Trump.

This is in contrast to the shutdown in 2013, when Republicans at first refused to pass a bill to fund the government unless the implementation of the Affordable Care Act was delayed. The party could not sustain the shutdown in part because more moderate Republicans were balking at the strategy, which was favored by more conservative Republicans.

In the House, only 12 of 199 Republicans have supported any of the seven funding bills (without wall money) that Pelosi has brought up for a vote. And not a single Democrat has voted against these bills, illustrating there is virtually no Democratic support in Congress to put wall money into the government funding bill.

The parties have stuck together on government funding bills

House votes on bills to fund various parts of the government since the partial government shutdown began, by party

Republicans Democrats
Bill date Yes No Other Yes No Other GOP unity DEM unity
H.J. Res. 27 1/15 6 187 6 231 0 4 97% 100%
H.R. 266 1/11 10 179 10 230 0 5 95 100
H.R. 265 1/10 10 183 6 233 0 2 95 100
H.R. 267 1/10 12 180 7 232 0 3 94 100
H.R. 264 1/9 8 188 3 232 0 3 96 100
H.R. 21 1/3 7 190 1 234 0 1 96 100
H.J. Res. 1 1/3 5 192 1 234 0 1 97 100

“Other” includes members who voted “present” or did not vote.
Unity scores represent the number of Democrats or Republicans who voted in line with their party divided by the total number of fellow party members who voted “yes” or “no” on that bill.

Source: ProPublica

The parties stick together on most votes in Congress, but the 96 percent of Republicans who voted together on the average shutdown bill is still higher than 40 percent of votes1 in the Trump era. Democrats’ 100 percent unity is obviously as high as it gets.

What does that tell us about Washington politics right now? Let’s look at it from the perspective of congressional Democrats, congressional Republicans and Trump:

Congressional Democrats. The Democrats arguably have the upper hand in this fight because the wall is net unpopular with the public, and shutting down the government for the wall is even more unpopular. But it’s a good sign for Pelosi and Schumer that they have been able to keep the party’s members unified as they’ve refused to relent to Trump’s demands. Democrats had been unified against much of Trump’s agenda in 2017 and 2018, with no Democrat voting for the Trump-backed health care or tax provisions. But that was when the party was in the minority in both chambers. Democrats in the House are governing now, led by a speaker who some members had concerns about. But they have stood behind Pelosi and Schumer’s strategy on the shutdown.

At least so far, it doesn’t seem like Democrats moving into the House majority is causing any serious upheaval in their ranks. (All the talk about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notwithstanding.)

Trump. The president is unpopular. The Republicans lost the House in large part because of the president’s unpopularity. And as I noted before, the wall is unpopular.

But Republicans in Congress have largely stood behind the president as he pushes for the wall, an idea they are not particularly excited about. That congressional Republicans remain this loyal to Trump is a good sign for him. It suggests he is likely to get ironclad support from Senate Republicans on his Cabinet and judicial nominations, even more controversial ones, despite the midterm losses. Senate Republicans posture during this shutdown suggests Trump should not worry about both houses of Congress coming together to pass bills and then daring him to veto them — or joining forces as a check on the president. Trump and Senate Republicans now can basically blame anything going poorly in Washington on Pelosi (since she runs the House and can block things). And they have been doing just that during the shutdown.

Congressional Republicans. The decision to continue to tightly ally with Trump, while not surprising, doesn’t seem particularly smart for Republicans in the House and Senate. The wall is not popular outside of the president’s base — and that base is not big enough for the GOP to do well in 2020. Trump might lose in 2020, but at least the wall is something he campaigned on and seems to care about deeply.

I’m not predicting voters will recall this shutdown in November 2020. But it seems unwise for congressional Republicans to basically allow the party’s strategy to be directed by Trump. Maybe this wall issue is an aberration, and Republicans will distance themselves more from the president over the next two years. But Trump’s culture war politics resulted in a very narrow electoral victory in 2016 and a resounding defeat in 2018. Congressional Republicans could treat the wall and Trump’s broader immigration approach like they have the president’s Russia stances, which the GOP has largely rejected. Instead, so far, congressional Republicans have linked themselves to a strategy that polls suggest is politically toxic.


A final point: The shutdown and the partisan unity displayed during it so far are, I think, unequivocally bad for the American public. It’s not just that 800,000 people are either working without pay or not working at all, nor is it that various federally funded things, like Smithsonian museums, are closed. Rather, the standoff in the capital is both a scary illustration of U.S. politics right now and a potential preview of two years full of very, very intense conflict in Washington.

Usually, one party or the other concedes during a shutdown as the public assesses blame. But those shutdowns, like in 2013 (over Obamacare) or 2018 (over DACA) were about issues. This shutdown is ostensibly about the wall, but remember, congressional Republicans aren’t really that enthusiastic about the wall. The wall and the shutdown have become a test of their loyalty to Trump — and it’s harder to compromise on loyalty than on dollars and cents. If the next two years are various loyalty tests, it will be virtually impossible for any congressional Democrat to vote for something Trump backs (the Democratic base hates, hates him) — or any Republican to vote against it.

Aaron Bycoffe contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Including only simple-majority votes.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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