Why Chuck Schumer Can’t Win on Immigration

8 minute read

At any other time, this would be a fine moment for Chuck Schumer to open that bottle of Brooklyn bourbon that he gifted Mitch McConnell this week.

Since Congress returned in January, Schumer has secured for another decade funding for health programs for poor kids. Caps on domestic spending have been removed, opening the way for opioid treatment, community health centers and prescription drugs for seniors. If Donald Trump keeps digging holes for the Republicans, Democrats may have a very, very good Election Night in November and Schumer’s party might just earn the majority.

Yet the Senate Minority Leader is marching through the Capitol with plenty of side-eye from his skeptical colleagues. Among aides and advisers to Democratic lawmakers, there is a strained patience with Schumer, who balked during the shutdown and, at least for the moment, traded away immigration in order for a broader spending bill. In conversations with more than 25 Hill staffers, the distaste for Schumer is clear. Among most lawmakers, there is only slightly more respect for Schumer’s strategy and deep fears about the party’s base.

None of Schumer’s successes matter if he cannot shepherd an immigration bill into law in the eyes of his party’s loudest voices. And his efforts for those immigrants, at least in 2018, don’t give his troops a reason to rest comfortably.

“We all know that immigration is fraught with peril. But this is the closest we’ve come, and everybody has to make a really final effort,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday. “In our Democratic caucus, we want to do two things: protect Dreamers and get 60 votes. It’s not an easy needle to thread.”

Schumer, it seems, cannot win.

He guided the government into a shutdown last month over immigration protections for young people who came to the country illegally as children. (The hostage-taking failed.) He let government workers get back to work three days later on the promise the Democrats would get a vote on immigration legislation. (They did not immediately, but instead they voted to keep the government funded for another two years and have scheduled votes on immigration for Thursday.) Now, Schumer and his party are racing against a March 5 deadline to protect those young immigrants. (Failure could result in as many as 800,000 deportations, although it’s not clear if the courts would allow enforcement.)

So it’s entirely understandable that Schumer looks tired these days. His allies are engaged in a ferocious tug of war with him over this issue. The energized left flank of his Democratic Party wants a big deal, while pragmatists closer to the center want to focus on the immediate task of the Dreamers and those protected under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Those immigrants’ protected status is now measured in hours, not months, and there’s no telling how Trump will deal with them. After all, Trump himself ordered the DACA program’s end, told Congress to take up the issue if it mattered so much to them, seemed to strike a deal with Schumer only to renege when conservatives revolted.

The lure of a comprehensive immigration plan is tempting for most Democrats, yet it is likely too ambitious to chase with so little time and even less support for a big deal in the more conservative House. “It’s the first time in five years we’ve taken up this issue,” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate Democrats’ point man on these immigration talks and the second-ranking party member, who is holding out hope that Congress could get its act together on legislation that is literally being written, page by page, on the Senate floor this week.

“That is not a pathway to success,” said John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, adding that Durbin’s comprehensive approach is dead on arrival in the House and cannot win a signature at the White House. “I’m not interested in a futile act. I’m interested in making a law, which means passing the Senate, passing the House and getting signed into law by the President.”

The White House, meanwhile, seems to be moving the goalposts. On Wednesday, officials said Trump would not back any plan that didn’t hew to a hardline approach to immigration. Administration officials started to spin reporters that the Democrats would be to blame if Congress doesn’t send Trump a bill he likes, and vowed to reject anything that resembled a Band-Aid.

“The American people know what’s going on. They know this President not only created the problem, but seems to be against every solution that might pass because it isn’t 100 percent of what he wants,” Schumer fumed Wednesday on the Senate floor.

The President’s whims are partly why some Democrats are looking at the issue more narrowly. “We have to keep our eye on the ball,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said in the Senate, noting the disagreements spell disaster for the immigrants in question. “They face the constant fear of deportation,” she said. “They are American in every way, except on paper.”

That paper, however, matters a great deal.

Some in the Democratic conference — especially those who monitor polls obsessively — note that the Dreamers are among the most popular people in the country, with clear majorities favoring them staying in the country. Initial polls inside Democratic circles showed a drop among Dreamers’ standing as a shutdown linked to them began to break past the media bubble of the coasts. One of those polls showed a five percentage-point dip. If Democrats were to politicize their situation, Dreamers’ polling figures would drop even more, making them less sympathetic. And, if Democrats do succeed in protecting them from deportation, these longtime neighbors suddenly become less-welcome pawns in a political game.

With the deadline looming for DACA’s end, many Democrats privately worry that they’ll blow the moment without tangible results for immigrants and that the Republicans will again best them. The analogy among cynical Democrats is that of Lucy and her football: the GOP will hold out the ball for a kick, only to pull it away from Charlie Brown at the last, embarrassing second.

McConnell, the shrewd tactician who control the Senate schedule, told Democrats he would allow an open debate on immigration if they’d drop their shutdown. Schumer relented — after many Democrats in tough re-election fights this year had voted for the shutdown.

Republicans are making good on their promise to allow a debate on immigration, but it’s clear they were ready to move on even before they started. “We’ve got multi-days,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “Where is the plan?”

“This is the debate they said they wanted,” McConnell said just off the Senate floor. He then added that his patience is not endless. “We will need to wrap this up this week.”

Therein lies Schumer’s trouble. He has an energized and ambitious caucus. His top deputies are trying to keep spirits high, even as much of the caucus is still nursing grudges about a three-day fiasco shutdown that ended almost as quickly as it began. (“I don’t think Chuck had the stomach to go on,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginians who is among the most endangered Democrats facing voters this year. He is among the five Senate Democrats facing voters in states Trump carried by double-digits in 2016.)

The activists in the party — the rank-and-file volunteers who are the best mood ring of Democratic fortunes in this fall’s elections — are tepid at best toward what they see in Washington. And the balance sheets for the Democrats’ campaigns, committees and super PACs are vastly outgunned by the Republicans’ accounts. If those activists and donors sour on the Democrats in February, the climb to victories this November will get steeper.

Trying to direct the chaos inside the Democratic Party is Schumer. He has guided his Senate caucus to what would normally be tremendous victories. The accomplishments make for persuasive campaign ads for members facing re-election this year. Spending on domestic programs has climbed past Obama-era levels — despite a Republican-led House, Senate and White House. And he is still liked on a personal level by his colleagues who question his strategy.

Yet, Schumer can’t seem to win with them on immigration. Perhaps that’s why he should have kept that bottle of Brooklyn bourbon for himself.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com