Congress' DACA game of chicken goes off the cliff

The premise of a game of chicken is that in the end, someone always flinches. Congress found out early Saturday morni...

Posted: Jan 21, 2018 5:47 PM
Updated: Jan 21, 2018 5:47 PM

The premise of a game of chicken is that in the end, someone always flinches. Congress found out early Saturday morning what happens when no one does.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have spent months locked in a collision course on immigration, convinced the other side would cave. And after a failed vote to keep government open on the Senate floor late Friday night into early Saturday morning, not only were they proven wrong -- both sides dug in deeper.

White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters on Capitol Hill Saturday morning that there would be no further negotiation on how to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until the shutdown ended.

"As soon as they reopen the government we'll resume negotiations on DACA, but it's hard to negotiate on that while they're keeping our border agents unpaid, keeping our troops unpaid, and not paying for American services," Short said.

Meanwhile, Democrats continued to insist that the promise of a future vote on immigration wasn't enough, as they didn't trust that it would actually materialize.

"We're trying to get to not just reopening the government, doing it as quickly as we can, but doing it in an effective way so we can address the issues that are pending," said No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin on Saturday.

He added that in 2013, when the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration deal partially authored by him that died in the House, he learned a lesson.

"We don't want a similar fate," Durbin said. "What we're looking for is not a guaranteed outcome, but an opportunity outcome. A free standing bill is not a very great opportunity."

How we got here

The dramatic shutdown marked the finale of at least one phase in the months-long dance between Republicans and Democrats since President Donald Trump decided in September to terminate the DACA policy, a popular program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.

Trump's move happened as congressional leadership was working through negotiations on long-term government funding, with only short-term continuing resolutions passing Congress since. While budget talks have been working through a number of sticking points, including domestic versus defense spending caps, children's health insurance and disaster relief, it is immigration that has proved the thorniest issue for either side to budge on.

For Republicans, it was essential to isolate immigration as an issue, with the hope of gaining more leverage by dragging it closer to a March deadline on DACA and forcing Democrats to give up their budget negotiating power. The thinking went that Democrats would not only get desperate to protect the young immigrants, but that vulnerable Democratic senators would balk at rejecting funding if it was perceived as only about DACA. Republican leadership also feared the reaction from its base if it allowed a vote on a so-called "amnesty" on must-pass legislation.

For Democrats, in contrast, the focus was on keeping immigration as part of the fabric of all the issues, showing the base it wasn't something that could be jettisoned for convenience and maintaining negotiating leverage. The only way they could trust a vote would happen in a GOP-controlled Washington, Democrats were convinced, was if DACA was part of must-pass legislation.

Both sides were convinced for months their side was the stronger position. As days grew closer to the Friday deadline, Democrats only grew more confident they could avoid blame, especially after Trump rejected in vulgar terms a bipartisan compromise that a handful of Republicans were vocally supporting. Republicans remained convinced that red-state Democrats wouldn't be able to survive the pressure.

But in the end, neither blinked.

No signs of thaw

As the shut down stretched into Saturday, neither side looked any closer to showing signs of movement.

Republicans continued to blame Democrats for shutting down the government over a single issue, insisting they were willing to negotiate. Democrats continued to blame Republicans for being disingenuous and untrustworthy, demanding they get serious and stop kicking the can further down the road.

"It's totally inexcusable, shutting down the government as a bargaining chip for any issue," Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, said Saturday in the Capitol. Alexander has backed the bipartisan DACA bill rejected by the President. "It ought to be like chemical warfare, it ought to be banned. It ought not to be a tool," he added about shut downs.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke with their House counterparts from the Senate floor late Friday and they remained steadfast despite requests to add immigration to the mix that it would not be part of a must-pass bill.

"There's no reason to shut down the government in order to encourage us to the table on DACA because we're already at the table," Cornyn said, though the only immigration talks he said he was scheduled to participate in Saturday were among Republicans alone.

Democrats continued to hammer the idea that they were the ones looking for reasonable solutions.

"Look, at this point, I'm not supporting any CR that doesn't include a fix," said Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, long a pro-immigration advocate. "Now, what I am telling you is, if that fix includes a wall, I'm ready.

And Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who voted for a continuing resolution in December, said he'd lost his patience on Friday night before voting against the failed proposal with most of his colleagues. He said without "credible progress" on a number of issues, including DACA, he couldn't support the bill.

"I'm just trying to make sure that my Republican friends understand how a reasonable Democrat like me has ended up in a place where I don't believe that they're at all serious about addressing DACA in the next month, given the way the President blew up a pretty solid bipartisan deal last Thursday," Coons said.

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