If the government shuts down this weekend — or, indeed, at any point until the midterm elections — it will be the first time a true, honest-to-God shutdown has happened with a single party controlling the White House and Congress.
It’s true that Jimmy Carter and Democrats in Congress butted heads five separate times in 1977, 1978, and 1979, and couldn’t get their act together to fund the government (Carter was a bad president!). But that was before Carter’s attorney general issued guidance saying that when a funding gap like that exists, government functions must shut down.
Carter’s “shutdowns” didn’t lead to any federal employees being sent home and denied pay. Donald Trump’s will.
Republicans will try to blame the Democratic minority in the Senate for threatening to filibuster a spending bill that doesn’t include relief for DACA recipients — unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children and who had been protected by an Obama administration executive action that Trump has since revoked. And they’ll have a bit of a point if at least 50 Senate Republicans agree with House Republicans about how best to proceed and the only thing preventing action is a Democratic filibuster.
But as my colleague Dylan Scott notes, it’s not clear there’s a Republican majority in the Senate that supports the House approach of refusing to deal with DACA. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) all signaled opposition to, or at least skepticism of, the House funding bill. If they hold fast and Republicans can’t agree among themselves, it’s somewhat perverse to blame Democrats for the ensuing shutdown.
More to the point, everyone in Republican leadership at least purports to believe that DACA recipients deserve relief. Trump has said he wants a “bill of love” that would offer them legal status. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to hold a vote on a DACA bill that has Trump’s endorsement. Flake, Graham, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) have signed on to a bipartisan deal that pairs a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients (and people who are eligible for it but haven’t applied) with limits on citizenship for their parents and elimination of the “diversity visa” program.
What’s more, if Republicans really had 50 votes in the Senate, and cared deeply enough about keeping the government open, they could always heed Trump’s call and eliminate the filibuster, denying Democrats any ability to obstruct their agenda on issues where Republicans are united.
This isn’t to pin exclusive blame on Republicans for the shutdown. Democrats have clearly decided that a shutdown is a price worth paying for a DACA deal. But what’s genuinely bizarre is that Republicans have decided a shutdown is a price worth paying for not doing a DACA deal, despite insisting they want to do a DACA deal.
This is a sharp difference between the current debate and the 2013 shutdown. The Republican demand then was for President Obama to agree to delay Obamacare, his signature achievement, for at least a year, throwing into question whether it would ever in fact take effect. It was an absurdly huge ask, one that no reasonable person would ever expect Obama to accept.
Democrats’ ask in 2018, that Republicans agree to codify DACA in law, is something Republicans have already said they want to do.
The fact that Republicans won’t agree to it now can’t be explained by treating the party as a unified actor. It’s not. The White House itself isn’t even a unified actor, with immigration hardliners on the staff like Stephen Miller reportedly worried that Trump will be “tricked” into a deal like the bipartisan compromise championed by Graham and Flake; Miller reportedly invited Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), both immigration restrictionists, to a White House meeting with Graham and his Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin to ensure Trump didn’t sign on to the bipartisan deal.
Nor is the Republican caucus in Congress a unified actor. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan try their best to create unity, but tensions between the Graham-Flake wing of the party and the Cotton-Goodlatte wing are becoming more and more obvious and public. A deal that prevents a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, like the Graham-Flake plan, might be sunk by conservatives in the House.
What we’re seeing, more than anything, is a government that is unified in name only. Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, Tom Cotton, Stephen Miller, and Donald Trump are all Republicans. But they are not on the same side, and Trump appears generally baffled and unsure which side he’s on, if any.
A party needs to be in an impressive amount of disarray to control both houses of Congress and the presidency and still fail to fund the government. That’s the situation the Republican Party finds itself in today.