Heading into day three of the shutdown, activists on the left had one message for Democrats: hold the line. It was not one they heeded.
For months, the party’s grassroots base had been urging lawmakers not to support a spending bill unless it included a permanent solution for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
But as Democrats largely joined with Republicans to pass a short-term spending bill based only on a promise that the Senate would take up legislation to address immigration issues, activists turned to condemnation.
The Monday deal to end the shutdown was what activist group MoveOn.org’s Ben Wikler had described as a “worst case scenario” in an interview on Sunday afternoon and in a tweet on Monday, he called it a “kick in the stomach.”
Co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee Stephanie Taylor blasted Democrats for folding in a statement that was issued before the final vote was even tallied on Monday. “Today’s cave by Senate Democrats — led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats — is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything,” she said.
Murshed Zaheed, the political director of the liberal grassroots organization CREDO, had expressed some concern that Democrats would back down on Sunday, hours before a late-night vote to end the shutdown that was ultimately postponed. For him, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s reported willingness to fund President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall in exchange for Dreamer protections was a red flag.
“The way you confront a bully is not by giving him what he wants,” he said.
Giving up the fight without any concessions from Republicans, he warned, would threaten the already precarious relationship the organizing class has with Democratic leaders which he described as “transactional.” And looking ahead to the upcoming midterm contests, where Democrats are hoping tap into anti-Trump anger and pick up Congressional seats, he predicted that a wave election would be a repudiation of Trump and “not necessarily a vote of confidence for the current leadership of the Democratic Party.”
Where Democrats were unified heading into the weekend, that began to fray for a host of reasons. Some lawmakers heard from constituents back home — especially in states reliant on federal contractors. Others worried that the off-ramp for the shutdown hinged on Republicans caving. (Unlikely, if history were a guide.) For some Democrats, shutting down the government and programs they wanted to protect and expand ran counter to their core beliefs.
When the question of DACA-or-funding came up, on Dec. 7, eight members of the Democratic caucus voted against the stopgap. That number climbed to 30 lawmakers who caucus with Democrats by the time the Dec. 21 vote rolled around. Last week, the figure hit 44.
Clearly, the momentum was on the side of those putting a premium on DACA. When folks like Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from a state Trump carried by a whopping 54 percentage points, hold strong, it’s a sign the polling is indisputable. Even so, he was one of the few Democrats up in 2018 who didn’t switch votes on Monday’s procedural question.
Still, some in the Democratic caucus asked if they fighting for the right reasons. After all, many in the room had assured Dreamers that they would be taken care of if they signed up for DACA protections. Shutting down the government didn’t help them. Failing to negotiate with Trump did them no favors. The human costs were not insignificant.
Dreamers like Antonio Jauregui, 20, traveled to Washington ahead of the shutdown as a living example of that human cost. In September, his own DACA protections expired. He applied to renew, but the Fresno, Calif. resident’s application was rejected because of a postal delay.
“I’ve told lawmakers that I can’t wait, but it does not seem to connect,” he said in an interview. “The deadline is not March 5th. It’s not February 8th. It’s now.”
Some Democrats argued that the concessions on Monday allowed the party to look responsible and pave the way for sweeps in the fall’s midterm elections. A Democratic staffer said members of the caucus were energized by the sense of urgency that the present situation creates in terms for both a broader spending deal and DACA.
But as one longtime strategist on immigrant politics said: “Even if we win Congress, it will be too late to matter for Dreamers. Too little, too late.”
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