When 18 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to pass a short-term spending bill on Thursday, it marked yet another day of disappointment for Dreamers and their allies in Congress.
Earlier on Thursday afternoon, a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had marched across the Capitol to Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office, asked his receptionist for a meeting, and soon found themselves in a room with the minority leader. The topic was finding a fix for DACA recipients before adjourning for the year—a pledge Democrats made to the so-called Dreamers in September, after President Trump announced plans to end the program that shields children of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“We were clear,” Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, perhaps the most outspoken advocate for Dreamers in Congress, said after the meeting. “You cannot put [Dreamers], Mr. Schumer, on a pedestal, take them to the Democratic convention, and then not give them the same kind of legislative importance moving forward.”
The Hispanic Caucus, Dreamers, activists, and progressives are furious that another must-pass spending bill will move through Congress without a DACA fix attached.
There was no fix in the September short-term spending bill, there wasn’t one in the two-week spending bill that passed on Dec. 8, and there isn’t one in the four-week spending bill that the House introduced Thursday before government funding was set to expire on Friday night. Democratic leaders say they used “end of the year” as shorthand for when the full, long-term appropriations bill would pass and did not anticipate that there would be another short-term bill kicking the process into January. But they now have to live by their miscalculation. A DACA fix will not come out of Congress by the end of the year.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has stood her ground, whipping her conference to vote against the bill if the DREAM Act and other priorities weren’t included in the bill. Pelosi herself, along with Hispanic Caucus chairwoman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, testified before the House Rules Committee on Thursday morning, urging the committee to amend the spending bill to include the DREAM Act. It did not. The bill passed the House on Thursday afternoon, 231 to 188. Though 14 Democrats eventually voted for it, they withheld their votes until it was clear Republicans could reach a majority without their help.
In the Senate, though, Schumer has not whipped his conference to block a spending bill that doesn’t contain a DACA fix.
Schumer, in floor remarks Thursday morning, said that a full reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, community health centers, and the solution for Dreamers would all have to be solved together—“even if that means passing a clean, short-term CR extension of government funding with some anomalies … and continuing the negotiations into January.” In other words: He wouldn’t press for a DACA fix at this particular leverage point.
Though a DACA fix is popular, forcing a shutdown on the issue would be risky for Democrats. “Most people want DACA replaced,” as FiveThirtyEight wrote recently. “But for a lot of people, it’s not enough of a priority to shut down the government.”
Democrats are divided over whether they could successfully blame Republicans—who control both houses of Congress—for a shutdown. Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, asked after the meeting with Schumer about the Senate leader’s rationale, said it was “the same one you hear from some about Democrats not being responsible for a shutdown.”
“But I don’t think we would be responsible,” he added.
Schumer seems unwilling to gamble with the fortunes of the two-dozen Democratic senators who are up for election in 2018. Democrats running in red states, specifically, have signaled this week that they’re not interested in risking a shutdown. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who is up for re-election in a state that’s not so red anymore but is home to many, many government employees, also deprioritized shutting down the government over the issue.
“I will exercise every bit of leverage I can for the Dream Act,” Kaine told the Washington Post earlier this week, “but if there is a vote that would lead to a shutdown, that’s where I draw the line.”
It’s hard to overstate how infuriating such remarks—I will use all the leverage I have, except for the big piece of leverage that I have—are to Dreamers and their allies, who have come to D.C. for countless protests and rallies, shut down Capitol cafeterias, and are now being told, for a third time, to wait a little while longer.
“They told us Dec. 8, then Dec. 22, and now they tell us to wait until January,” Paul Quiñonez, a DACA recipient from Seattle with Washington Dream Coalition and United We Dream, told me in the Capitol on Monday. He was with a group who had just spoken with the congresswoman representing most of Seattle, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, off of the House floor.
“To expect us to go home and be able to celebrate Christmas in this environment, when they’re happy to be able to go home with their families, and we have to be living in fear, is unacceptable,” Quiñonez continued. He laid most of the blame on the Senate.
“What this vote means realistically is that they’re funding our deportations,” he said.
Democratic leaders insist they have a strategy to pass a DACA fix in January. Defense hawks—and the Defense Department—have been furious with these stopgap bills and won’t be expected to go along with them much longer. (Indeed, it took an awful lot of effort from House Republicans’ whip team this week to get enough defense hawks to go along with this CR.) They want a long-promised boost in defense spending that would come with the long-term appropriations bill. As one Democratic member told Politico, this means the dynamic will soon reach an “inflection point.” If House Republican leaders can’t muster 217 votes from within their own conference for another stopgap, that’s when Democrats feel they can successfully force a resolution for Dreamers. It helps, too, that another debt ceiling hike—which will require Democratic votes—will also need to be passed early in the year.
The Hispanic Caucus couldn’t force a commitment from Schumer to whip against the bill but nevertheless tried to put a positive spin on their meeting. “We came over here to galvanize support for our Dreamers, and we got that,” Gutiérrez said, vaguely. “And I believe that leaving this meeting, we all leave with a certainty and a confidence that we are closer.”
Still, despite the need to declare some sort of victory, there were still obvious signs of discomfort. And with good reason. What if Democrats’ leverage play doesn’t pan out in the next negotiations, and Senate Democrats once again get cold feet at the idea of triggering a shutdown over DACA? What if the DACA deal that a bipartisan group of negotiators having been working on includes far too much interior enforcement than Democrats would be comfortable with?
“We’re really tired of ‘tomorrow,’ and why should we expect that if we come back in January, they’re not going to give us another reason?” Gutiérrez said. “So part of being here 25 years is: I’ve seen this movie before. And, you know, the ending isn’t good when it comes to our immigrants.”